William Wilberforce’s public Christianity and the fight against the slave trade

William Wilberforce was the face of British opposition to the slave trade. He was also a rigidly devout Evangelical Christian. As it turns out, he became the former largely because he became the latter.

His conversion story is endearingly uneventful. On a trip one day in his early twenties, he noticed a copy of The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, a 1745 treatise by the Congregationalist minister Philip Doddridge, and it piqued his curiosity. The acquaintance with whom he was staying, famed mathematician Isaac Milner, declared it “one of the best books ever written,” and offered to read through it with him. By the time they had finished, Wilberforce claims, he had “reached intellectual assent to the Biblical view of man, God and Christ.”

The experience noticeably changed him. As a younger man, Wilberforce fit comfortably into the privileged playboy mold, drawing the ire of his fellow MPs by the unserious manner with which he approached his work. Returning from his experience with Milner, however, Wilberforce put his face to the plough. Wilberforce would later write of the way that the scriptures had awoken him to the gravity of his responsibilities, “The diligent perusal of the Holy Scriptures would discover to us our past ignorance.”

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The changes Wilberforce was experiencing began to set him apart from his contemporaries in ways that are difficult to grasp in hindsight.

Wilberforce’s conversion cut through his old habits to an astounding degree, even drawing him away from the often corrosive social norms of pre-Victorian Britain to devote himself to the joys and obligations that he believed the Lord placed on men – like fatherhood and spending time with his children. He turned the microscope on himself with an almost obsessive tenacity.

“Let him still remember that his chief business while on earth is not to meditate,” he wrote, “but to act.”

His determination to put every corner of his own life in line with God’s benevolent demands sometimes made him the subject of mockery by his colleagues. On one occasion, he became a laughingstock among the parliamentarians because of his ill-fated attempt to “mediate between George IV and his estranged wife, Queen Caroline.” Wilberforce was undeterred. Through the years, his vision grew bolder, and the scope of his project grew wider.

“If a principle of true Religion should gain ground,” he wrote, “there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare.” He later explained to one of his subjects: “A man who acts from the principle I profess reflects that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the Judgment seat of Christ.”

This is, again, shocking because Wilberforce – like many of his colleagues – effectively inherited his post. Politics was, for many well-to-do sons, a relatively low-hanging means of job security. To acquire a position in parliament and then coast was fairly par for the course.

Not for Wilberforce, though. “No man has a right to be idle,” he explained. Having inherited a position of remarkable power, he believed that God would therefore require a great deal from him.

“Where is it that in such a world as this, that health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?”

Going to sleep at the wheel was not an option that the Lord had given him:

“My walk is a public one,” he declared. “My business is in the world.”

Thus, he determined that “the Lord has set before me two great missions: The abolition of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners,” and that same year launched The Society for the Suppression of Vice, devoted to “the encouragement of piety and virtue; and for the preventing of vice, profaneness, and immorality.” Wilberforce wanted to engineer a religious revival in Britain’s political sphere.

But accomplishing much of anything would require organizing. Towards that end, he joined a group of like-minded politicians and business leaders. Calling themselves the Clapham Sect, they formed a parliamentary Bible study led by John Newton, the author of the classic hymn Amazing Grace (not entirely unlike the much-reviled Washington, D.C. gatherings allegedly held by “the Fellowship,” as chronicled in the work of Jeff Sharlett).

To understand Wilberforce’s political activism, though, you have to understand what he believed about how culture works. “The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength,” he once lamented. “Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.” Britain’s religiosity was thinning – not waning, necessarily, but thinning – and as a result its communal conscience was deadening.

This was not standard ‘the world is going to hell in a handbasket’ hand-wringing. As Wilberforce understood it, the “peculiar doctrines” of the Christian faith functioned as the primary engine that drives social change – whether good or bad. That meant that an increasingly irreligious Britain would likely skew towards a kind of passive conservatism, which neither preserves Britain’s traditional virtues nor progresses beyond Britain’s traditional vices. In his landmark work, A Practical View of Christianity, he writes:

“Christianity has set the general tone of morals much higher than it was ever found in the Pagan world. She has everywhere improved the character and multiplied the comforts of society, particularly to the poor and the weak, whom from the beginning she professed to take under her special patronage. Like her divine Author, ‘who sends his rain on the evil and on the good,’ she showers down unnumbered blessings on thousands who profit from her bounty, while they forget or deny her power, and set at nought her authority.”

Wilberforce’s point is subtle, and does not neatly fit into the balkanized political discourse to which contemporary Americans are accustomed. In one particularly elucidating passage, he chronicles the way that the “peculiar doctrines” of the faith transform the values system of the cultures in which they take hold:

Putting it another way, the doctrines of the Christian religion trickled down, in a sense, to the general public – including the irreligious – by reshaping their moral vocabulary and catechizing them into the necessary values system that makes political equality a live option.

Nevertheless, Britain was de-Christianizing to a degree. The doctrines of the faith no longer held the necessary grip on the public conscience.

This hollowing out of the faith, Wilberforce believed, was the fault of the clergy. Increasingly, British Christianity had cast off its proletarian bent and become, essentially, a hobby for affluent nerds. Legions of middle sons, well-educated but without prospects for inheritance, sought financial security in the Anglican priesthood.

Much theological speculation and little missionary zeal ensued. After several generations, the masses of Britain – especially the underclass, who often quite literally could not understand the hyper-academic pulpiteering of the bookworm priesthood – were effectively uncatechized. As a result, the working class was both morally unbridled and easily oppressed by the ruling class. The solution, Wilberforce wrote, was teach them the faith.

A working class empowered by the Christian faith and loosed from political oppression would also be – perhaps counterintuitively – unprecedentedly governable. Wilberforce envisioned a faith that moved working men press back against injustice inflicted against themselves and others, but he believed that same faith would often turn violent and unstable citizens into upstanding and peaceable contributors to society:

“If any country were indeed filled with men, each thus diligently discharging the duties of his own station without breaking in upon the rights of others, but on the contrary endeavouring, so far as he might be able, to forward their views and promote their happiness; all would be active and harmonious in the goodly frame of human society . . . Such would be the happy state of a truly Christian nation within itself.”

It was largely because of this redemptive optimism that he came under the conviction that the British slave trade was morally unacceptable – and, most importantly, that it was defeatable. At the beginning of his career, that was not common.

“The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies will always prevent this traffic being dropped,” one publicist wrote. “The necessity, the absolute necessity, then, of carrying it on, must, since there is no other, be its excuse.” The average pre-Victorian British person, if he thought about the slave trade at all, thought of it as probably unpleasant and utterly inevitable.

“The famed abolitionist was no theocrat, but he exemplified the transforming power that particular religious convictions – in this case, explicitly Christian convictions of a deeply traditionalist stripe – can have even on intensely corrupt and sclerotic political systems.”

Early on, Wilberforce likely shared the complacent consensus. That did not last long. “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition,” he recounted after a life-changing encounter with his colleague and friend, the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. “Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

From that point forward, he became a thorn in the side of the British slave trade caucus, bringing forward “his first motion in Parliament for slave trade abolition” in 1787 in partnership with Burke, Charles Fox, and others. It was unsuccessful, but he responded to opposition with blitzkrieg: 12 resolutions in 1789, followed by at least 8 bills between 1791 and 1805.

When standard politics failed to get the job done, Wilberforce had to get creative: He launched a relentless media campaign. “Wilberforce used the force of the printed word by distributing pamphlets that revealed the evils of slavery,” writes William R. Bowen, Jr. “He also worked to place in the hands of the government the opinions of the British people by circulating petitions, bringing to the House of Commons 519 petitions containing thousands of signatures by the British people.” One of his most famous pamphlets, A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, masterfully declares that “The colonial system, as now administered, except perhaps in some particular cases, has not only been injurious to the Slaves, but on the long run to the master also.”

Behind the scenes, he worked to galvanize clergy into preaching on the subject of the slave trade. He was not asking them to transform their pulpits into political soapboxes. He was asking them to make the natural connections between the liberatory ethos of scripture and the Pharaohistic practices of the British Empire explicit in their sermons. “The most active supporters of our cause have too often been democrats, and radicals, with whom the regular clergy could not bring themselves to associate,” he wrote in a letter his son, Samuel, an Anglican minister. “It might have a very good effect, for any of my reverend children to be known to manifest their zeal in the great cause of West Indian emancipation, and slaves’ improvement.”

Many clergymen heeded his call, and the combined forces of his media blitz paid off. “Winning over both public opinion and key politicians eventually allowed Wilberforce to push abolition through,” Hay continues. “Lord Grenville, as prime minister, introduced a motion in the House of Lords in 1807 that made its passage in the House of Commons a foregone conclusion.” The motion won 283 to 16. “Parliament abolished the slave trade in the British Empire,” writes one of his biographers. “He then worked to ensure the slave trade laws were enforced and, finally, that slavery in the British Empire was abolished . . . he heard three days before he died that the final passage of the emancipation bill was ensured in committee.”

Beyond – and because of – his anti slave trade ministry, Wilberforce was subject to vicious attacks from nearly every corner of the political spectrum. One particularly memorable barb came from William Cobbett. “You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes,” he shouted, but “never have you done one single act in favor of the laborers of this country.”

Cobbett had a point, actually. He may have been ahead of the curve on slavery, but he – like Burke – was shamefully obtuse about many of the gross injustices inflicted on workers in Britain. Each “free” laborers was, in reality, reduced to being nearly a slave under the cruel conditions of British capitalism, and Wilberforce vehemently opposed their only safeguard: the right to organize. “He has no mercy on those who claim a property in negro-slaves as so much live-stock on their estates,” wrote William Hazlitt. “But not a word has he to say, not a whisper does he breathe against the claim set up by the Despots of the Earth over their Continental subjects, but does every thing in his power to confirm and sanction it!” He continues: “He preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages; and tolerates its worst abuses in civilized states.”

That is to say, Wilberforce had blind spots – rather serious ones, at that. But it would be reductive to label him, as did contemporaries like Cobbett and Hazlitt, as a shill for the moneyed interests. He fell on his face when it came to labor rights, probably owing to his sequestered experience as a child of profound economic privilege and family prestige, but he was clearly not the 19th century equivalent of a Koch brothers plant. Lesser known, but no less consequential, than his abolitionist campaigns was his virulent opposition to the greatest moneymaking racket ever conceived by the oligarchy: British imperialism.

“If by patriotism be meant that mischievous and domineering quality, which renders men ardent to promote, not the happiness, but the aggrandisement of their own country, by the oppression and conquest of every other,” he wrote in A Practical View of Christianity, “to such patriotism, so generally applauded in the Heathen world, that Religion must be indeed an enemy, whose foundation is justice, and whose compendious character is “peace,—and good will towards men.”

To enrich oneself by despoiling other territories – even in the name of “spreading Christianity” and “civilizing the heathen” – was to make a mockery of the gospel, Wilberforce argued. And he voted accordingly. That his campaign against predatory colonization was unsuccessful does not make it any less remarkable.

The famed abolitionist was no theocrat, but he exemplified the transforming power that particular religious convictions – in this case, explicitly Christian convictions of a deeply traditionalist stripe – can have even on intensely corrupt and sclerotic political systems, as it did with the slave trade under Wilberforce. That should give us hope.

Thus, Cowper closes his Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.by petitioning his ghost. “Enjoy what thou hast won,” he writes. “Esteem and love from all the just on earth, and all the blest above!”

Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.

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