William Wilberforce as a Young Man

William Wilberforce as a Young Man

Properly balancing work, ministry and family responsibilities is not an easy feat to accomplish. Sometimes the pressures of seeking to do so are considerable. And even when we’re giving it our best we don’t always feel like we’re doing a very good job of maintaining a proper balance.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a leading Member of Parliament (MP) in the British House of Commons whose enormous efforts helped bring about extensive social and moral reforms in nineteenth century England (see my September 13 & 28, 2016 Perspectives). But Wilberforce also serves as an encouraging example of an individual who did a good (though not always perfect) job of caring for and ministering to his family while at the same time carrying out his heavy vocational responsibilities.

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce

Wilberforce was thirty-seven years old when, on April 15, 1797, he first met Barbara Spooner, the young woman who would become his wife. By that time he had been leading the political fight to end the British slave trade for nine years, and another decade would elapse before that battle would be won. By all reports, Barbara was physically attractive and, like Wilberforce, was an ardent Evangelical Christian. Just eight days after their first meeting Wilberforce proposed marriage by letter, and Barbara accepted that same day, also by letter. They were married five weeks later. Theirs was a happy marriage that lasted till Wilberforce’s death thirty-six years later.

William and Barbara had six children in ten years, four boys and two girls. Wilberforce sometimes had to be away from his family, a circumstance he strongly disliked, while attending to parliamentary duties in London. But when home, Wilberforce was very attentive and involved in the lives of his family members. With them he played games, read, went on walks, observed nature, went to museums, picnicked and celebrated holidays.

Kensington Gore House in London

Kensington Gore House in London

The Wilberforce home was a little eccentric and rather lax. Numerous pets, including a rabbit, were kept in the house. Barbara’s strong suit was not as “domestic engineer,” and the servants were allowed to be somewhat too laid back in their responsibilities. Sometimes the Wilberforces’ guests, who tended to be numerous, had to wait till odd, late hours for meals.

But William Wilberforce was very regular in his personal and family devotions. He habitually dedicated the first hour to hour and a half of the morning to personal Bible reading and prayer. Then, after a late breakfast, he led his family in a briefer time of Scripture reading and prayer, always kneeling for the latter.

One way in which Wilberforce sought to compensate when he needed to be away from his family members was by writing them many letters. His missives were full of warm affection and sound advice. Throughout his life he wrote a total of hundreds or even thousands of letters to his wife and children. One son collected and numbered all 600-plus letters that his father wrote just to him!

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce with child

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce with child

In 1808, after the birth of their last child, Wilberforce moved his family to Kensington Gore House in London so he could be with them more, even when Parliament was in session. Four years later, one of Wilberforce’s small children began to cry when placed on his lap, and the nursemaid commented of the child, “He always is afraid of strangers.” The incident led Wilberforce to resign his position as MP of Yorkshire (England’s most powerful county) and to become MP of a smaller and much less demanding constituency.

Sadly, William and Barbara’s two daughters died as young women, one at age twenty-two of tuberculosis and the other at thirty years of age from complications resulting from a chest infection. Three of the Wilberforces’ sons gained top university honors and entered pastoral ministry. Two of those wrote a comprehensive five-volume biography on the life of their beloved and esteemed father after his death. Unfortunately, the oldest Wilberforce son lost the family’s considerable fortune in the mismanagement of a large dairy operation late in his father’s lifetime.

William Wilberforce was obviously sensitive about and determined in his efforts to strike a proper balance in fulfilling his work and family responsibilities. Though he sometimes struggled to do so as well as he would have liked, he continued to work at it. As a result, he achieved a good degree of success in appropriately discharging both responsibilities. With God’s help and their own conscientious effort, committed Christian parents can do the same today.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

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