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Wilberforce and the Abolition of Slavery: What can Evangelicals Learn?

Posted: 15/05/13

Slavery hasn’t gone away. In many impoverished countries in the world today some estimate that millions of children and adults are in bondage to masters who use them for sexual or industrial profit. Even in places where slavery has been made illegal residual racism may persist, denying rights to human beings who have a just claim on their nation’s freedoms. In developed nations we may experience it as human trafficking, which is slavery under another name. Frequently we turn to the example of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and his friends, a network of committed clergy and laity who made their base in the leafy suburb of London called Clapham, to find inspiration and a model of social engagement. How can they help us today?

Their achievement was extraordinary. Appealing to Genesis 1-2, the Saints (as they were called) argued that all human beings are of the same family, all are of one blood, and none should be treated as inferior, for we are all made in the image of God. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) created ceramics to serve as propaganda for the cause, depicting a fettered slave asking the question ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ It was common for evangelicals in that period to hold a post-millennial eschatology, which awaited the Lord’s return in the middle distance. In the meantime therefore, we had to roll up our sleeves and get on with the work of making a difference. Just as sinners could be liberated from their sins by Christ, so other kinds of slavery were pernicious and needed to be abolished. The Clapham leaders organised campaigns of mass persuasion, with tracts, lectures, books and petitions to the Parliament. They excelled in bringing to the attention of the wider public ideas which had been circulated for some time, in both America and in England, by the Quakers. Living close together, and accessing a national network of Anglican clergy through the help of the local parish vicar, they demonstrated the power of collaboration. They were a kind of lay monastic order in retreat from the world in order better to infiltrate it.

We must be careful nonetheless not to imitate their approach without some caution. These men and women belonged to the social elite of England, who believed that they had responsibilities to protect England’s stability against the chaos and anarchy of the French Revolution (1789), and to prove to the world that, though they had lost the American colonies in a revolutionary war (1776-1783), England was morally superior because America had chosen to maintain slavery in their constitution. The evangelical cause in the eighteenth century had encouraged people in Europe and America to resist social and political assimilation through their new identity in Christ. If the British Empire listened to evangelical voices, together they could aid those wanting to resist unjust tyrannies. Furthermore, many of the Clapham leaders believed firmly in the benefits of free trade, arguing against government policies which intruded into people’s lives and businesses. Society was understood as organic, growing best without intervention or contracts, so England and her Empire espoused a kind of social and economic growth which was at odds with apparently arbitrary government restrictions. Even slave-holding was seen as the exercise of arbitrary authority over the free exchange of labour.

Remarkably, William Wilberforce in his most widely read work called Real Christianity or True Religion (1797), in which he appealed to the social elite to reject nominal Christianity and to recognise their sin and need of a Saviour, never argued for the abolition of the slave trade on the basis of the coming Kingdom or the hope we have for a transformed world. He doesn’t look forward to heaven to build his case, or speak of reality being dynamic and changing. He did of course agitate for change, and made the comment in 1787 that his life’s work could be summarised thus: ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.’ He stayed in politics rather than pursuing ordination after taking advice from John Newton, who wanted him to make a difference in the public sphere. His perseverance in leading debates in the House of Commons against the slave trade and then slave-holding is awe-inspiring. But fundamentally he held such a view of providence that any suffering in the world is purgative, helping to sift evil from human lives, and any suffering is passing, for life is cyclical at best and any season is limited in duration. His involvement in politics was motivated by a desire to ensure stability and maximize human freedom, of which abolition was a sub-set.

Wilberforce and the Clapham Saints embodied the best and worst of the second generation of any movement for renewal. They were able to harnass more resources than earlier revivalists, and they impacted not just the periphery of society as the Methodists had done but the centre and the elite as well. They gave to the earlier reforming agenda of the revivals new institutional leverage and shape. Sadly, their children did not on the whole follow their parents’ commitments. Later conservative governments justified their own social policies by appeal to the position of the Claphamites, who had spoken against many claims to the legislative rights of the industrial poor at home, potentially making of evangelical faith an ideological buttress against further amelioration of the condition of working men and women. The evangelical cause lost ground in the Church of England as the nineteenth century progressed, and many evangelicals became premillennial, arguing against social involvement while the Lord’s return was now argued to be imminent. The Saints had displayed great moral courage, but their understanding of eschatology and social ethics seemed not to carry the day in English political thinking.

I want to imitate William Wilberforce, and learn from his example how to bear a cost in following Christ. A friend of mine was told by some Chinese Christians that they didn’t want to become like Christians in the West, flabby and ineffective. We too should develop strategies for engaging the opinion-makers as well as serving those for whom life is tough, and recognize that movements for social transformation involve incubating ideas, developing networks, and fortifying the character of those in the front-line. Perhaps we need to hold back from the assumption that changing Australia is best achieved through the formation of Christian political parties or close association with ones that already exist. Aligning ourselves with party politics might just lead to short-term thinking and acting which marries the evangelical cause to the polemics of today. While Wilberforce’s politics may have been narrow, his heart was large. We can be thankful to God for his moral convictions and profound compassion, even when we must rethink his strategies for channeling our evangelical energy.

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