Sunday, January 29, 2006

In Christian and Political Praise of: William Wilberforce


As I have mentioned before, William Wilberforce is one of my biggest heroes in British political and Christian life!
It is simply because he made a stand against the things that went on in society, that many accepted, but which he felt were repugnant. This was fighting against the odds and took many years, but a lot of his views, and the views of others, helped change Britain for the better.
Things were never perfect of course, and there are a lot of attitudes that still need to be overturned, but it could be argued that Wilberforce and his fellow Clapham Sect made a significant difference!
Born in 1759, Wilberforce was educated at Pocklington and St John's College, Cambridge, where he made a lifelong friendship with the future Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. Whilst he wasn't yet a Christian, Wilberforce was shocked by the hedonism that took place at University, writing; "I was introduced on the very first night of my arrival to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives."
What Wilberforce would have made of University life today, or even the reputation of the Conservative Party Youth Group, Conservative Future, I dread to think!
It was at Cambridge that Wilberforce decided to pursue a career in politics, and he spent £9,000 to get elected as the Tory MP for Hull. Had his life gone through it's natural progression, Wilberforce would have easily risen through the ranks and likely have succeeded Pitt as Prime Minister in 1806, but, to use that old phrase, 'God had other plans..'
In 1784, Wilberforce became friends with an evangelical Christian, whilst on holiday on the continent. After much gentle belittling of his faith, the man challenged Wilberforce to give a very serious look at Christianity, if nothing else. This Wilberforce did, and he ended up as a Christian within months.
One thing that happens in such a step, is that your outlook on life gradually changes, and one notices things and changes points of view, simply because one's attitude is God-centred, compared to before. For the first time in his life, Wilberforce noticed that Britian and it's dependent states were in desperate need of social and moral reform! Duelling and gambling were rife, there was no social provision for men, women, and children working long hours with little pay, in places of little sanitation, and every chance of catching tuberculosis or any other fatal disease. Adultery was rife, so were the chances of catching sexually transmitted diseases, children could be hanged for petty crimes, corruption was immense with people able to buy their Parliamentary seats (If you have ever watched that episode of Blackadder, where Baldrick becomes an MP, that was basically what it was like!).
Then there was the slave trade. Where millions of Africans were kidnapped from their home, transpotted on ships, in unbeleiveably harsh conditions (many died on the way, from being in close confinemtn with many others, chained to the floot with little move for movement) to the West Indies and North America, and made to work long hours with many of their owners taking a harsh and cruel attitude towards them.
Some were already beginning to vocally complain about this barbarism, but they were social misfits like John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) and John Newton (who wrote Amazing Grace). Clergymen who were a little too enthusiastic about their faith and who took a tough view of sin.
Wilberforce was different, he was a bit of an establishment figure, and some went to him, knowing he was a devout Christian, voicing their concerns about the slave trade and hoping that, as an MP, he might be able to do something about it. Wilberforce felt that he might not be able to manage much, but that he had a moral right to do something about it in Parliament.
Wilberforce started his campaign in the late 1780s, facing hostility from fellow Tories, Whigs from across the Chamber floor, from prominent businessmen who were making much from the trade. He was lampooned and ridiculed by the critics and satirists of the day and, to their eternal shame, he was ridiculed by a no of people who were clergymen. Representatives of the faith Wiberforce lived and which they paid lip service to!
That said, Wilberforce had his allies. In his last letter to Wilberforce, John Wesley told him that if God was on his side, then it didn't matter how many opponents he had, he would eventually prevail. Wilberforce also had some friends who were Christians with close connections, known as the Clapham Sect by their detractors. People like the philanthropist Hannah More , the MP for Sothwark, Henry Thornton (whose economic views were later picked up by John Maynard Keynes), and the Venn Family (One of whom became a priest and founded the Church Missionary Society).
The French Revolution and the war with France which followed, made it difficult for Wilberforce to continue with his campaign, but he doggedly persisted, and in 1807, with a huge majority in the House of Commons (backed by the House of Lords), it became illegal to transport slaves. A huge difference from the 163 votes to 88 that Wilberforce suffered with his proposed Bill in 1791.
But it didn't stop there. Slavery was still legal in the colonies, and the trade still existed. If the Navy was about to catch a captain of a trading ship with slaves at sea, then the captain would have a no thrown overboard, so as to reduce the fine. The Clapham Sect realised that the only way to deal with the problem comprehensively, was to have slavery abolished altogether. Wilberforce was worried that this might be unworkable, but was persuaded to rejoin the campaign, but he was passed his peak and did not have much to contribute.
That said, the campaign had a full momentum of it's own and in 1833 an Act was passed making slavery illegal throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce died a month before it came on the Statute Books, but lived long enough to know it had passed. It is reputed that among his last words was his saying that to think he would live to see the day when Britain gave up £25 million sterling for the emancipation of slaves!
Wilberforce also campaigned for 'The Reformation of Manners', and this was championed by King George III in 1787 with his 'Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice'.
This took longer to persue, but the work of Wilberforce and his allies, had an influence of many who followed them, such as the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. I also have no doubt, that the effort the Clapham Sect had in changing attitudes affected the cultural attitudes in the UK for the better!


Tim said...

Hate to be miserable, but C. L. R. James in The Black Jacobins, his study of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (in particular pp 52-54), suggests that Pitt asked Wilberforce to run the campaign because (a) he thought Wilberforce would make a good front man, and (b) the campaign would serve British economic and imperial interests by lessening French predominance in the sugar trade. The motives were not as honourable as we tend to be taught in British schools...

Paul Burgin said...

One or two of the requests might not have been honourable, but some went to Wiberforce, asking for his help with genuine concern.
Besides, Wilberforce championed this cause consistently, even pushing it forward when Pitt asked him to tone things down!