Many Christians know the role of William Wilberforce in the elimination of the transatlantic slave trade. His success, aided by the Clapham Group of likeminded leaders, is one of the great cultural achievements of the 19th century. It deserves to be celebrated in a class by itself.
But it was by no means the extent of Wilberforce’s cultural activism. In 1787 Wilberforce wrote, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” What is the “reformation of manners”? Wilberforce understood that phrase to mean moral virtue. He likely borrowed the expression from the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which had been formed nearly a century earlier, but had since faded away. Wilberforce himself, in 1802, founded The Society for the Suppression of Vice. Wilberforce’s group was “for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.”
It is interesting to note that Wilberforce included gambling, prostitution, and drunkenness among the vices he wished to suppress. But a significant part of his agenda was the suppression of animal cruelty.
In Wilberforce’s time, bullbaiting had become a popular sport, though using the word “sport” to describe this barbaric practice is itself an offense to good manners. Bullbaiting involved securing a bull to the ground with a stake and a tether long enough to allow some movement. The bull, so bound, would then be set upon by a pack of dogs bred for their aggressiveness. Dogs and bulls alike were maimed and killed in horrific ways. The practice was common. Virtually every community in England had a bullring in the early 19th century.
Wilberforce called the practice “cruel and inhuman.” Because of the work practices of the era, bullbaiting mostly took place on Sunday, a profaning of the Sabbath that Wilberforce would have objected to even if bullbaiting was less barbarous.
With the help of fellow parliamentarians, Wilberforce set out to ban this practice and other forms of animal cruelty. In 1802 he sponsored a bill to end the practice. It is interesting that one of the arguments he had to fight back was the argument that baiting was a source of amusement for the people of England. In a speech that today we would call “politically incorrect,” Wilberforce said that if such practices amuse “the people,” then “the people must be wretched indeed.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the bill failed.
But if you have read Eric Metaxas’s biography of Wilberforce, you know that he was nothing if not relentless. After the 1802 attempt to suppress animal cruelty failed, he tried again in 1809…and failed. Then again in 1810…and failed. It was not until 1821 that Wilberforce and his colleagues tried again. Again, failure. But the next year, 1822, they were able to pass a bill “to prevent cruel and improper treatment of cattle.” The bill was finally given Royal Assent (signed into law) in July of that year.
Two years later, in June of 1824, Wilberforce and several of the other co-sponsors of that law formed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Many historians consider that event the beginnings of the modern era of advocacy of animals.
In this day, groups lobby not just to prevent animal cruelty, but for animal rights. Let’s be clear: The animal rights movement takes the biblical admonition to care for “every living thing” too far. It denigrates a biblical understand of God, of humanity, and of creation. (I’ve written about the animal rights movement here.)
But that doesn’t mean we should think of Wilberforce’s activism as a relic of an era with different priorities, different concerns. Indeed, Wilberforce’s concern for animal welfare was born out of a biblical understanding of God and his creation (that it is, as Genesis says, “good”) and a biblical understanding of human kind (that we are to treat creation as a gift from God and to steward it lovingly, a command from Gen. 1:28 and sometimes called the “cultural mandate”).
We need reminders of these ideas today. We need them in an era in which cockfighting, though illegal in all 50 states (as of 2008, when Louisiana became the last state to ban the practice), is still legal in five U.S. territories—American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Thankfully, that practice will end this year because of the 2018 farm bill signed by President Trump late last year.)
We need these reminders in an era in which animal cruelty, while illegal, is still distressingly common. In February 2014 authorities seized 3,000 game birds and charged nine men with felony animal-fighting. In May 2017 in California the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department seized 7,000 cockfighting birds at a nearby ranch, one of the largest cockfighting busts in U.S. history.
We need these reminders in an era in which one of sports’ most famous players, NFL quarterback Michael Vick, could be involved in a dog-fighting operation that sent him to prison. Today, Vick often speaks to Christian groups about repentance and forgiveness. He says he now understands that the cruelty he showed toward those animals was a manifestation of the sin and cruelty in his heart, and that it took going to prison to force him to confront that reality, a reality that “led me to Jesus Christ.”
Many reading this might argue that animal cruelty is a horrible thing, but abortion, human trafficking, pornography and other social ills are far worse. It’s a fair argument. But as Christians, we need to “run to the sound of the guns.” In other words, wherever a Christian worldview can bring clarity to replace confusion or compassion to replace cruelty, we need to be there.
Also, as Colson Center President John Stonestreet is fond of saying, we Christians need to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” In other words, a Christian worldview means God is sovereign over all areas of His creation, and we are His stewards over all areas of creation. Wilberforce fought the slave trade, the defining issue of his age, but he also fought animal cruelty.
It’s also important to note that it was Wilberforce’s advocacy for reform in all areas of life that gave him credibility with his fellow parliamentarians in the one arena – the slave trade – he cared most passionately about. Further, Wilberforce’s “reformation of manners” let to a great flowering of the British Empire in the 19th century that extended to commerce, art, an explosion of missionary activities, and much more.
Wilberforce understood that whenever and wherever we can demonstrate – as Abraham Kuyper said – that Christ is sovereign over “every square inch” of creation, we play a part in restoring God’s creation to its original design, and – most importantly – we bring glory to God.
Image: Samuel Henry Alken – “Bull Baiting,” Google Images