Under the leadership of William Wilberforce, the British slave economy ended, emancipation was won, and compassion became fashionable, all within the span of 50 years. Individually, these accomplishments were remarkable; collectively, they were breathtaking, especially when compared with the experience in the United States.
Behind the British success was a band of individuals who were burdened by their Christian faith to be difference-makers. The Clapham Sect consisted of a dozen or so philanthropists, led by Wilberforce, who were well-placed in British society. Their ranks included scholars, writers, statesmen, clergymen, and economists, all committed to use their positions and talents for the betterment of society.
Throughout history, groups dedicated to social change have come and gone with differing measures of success. However, few of them, since the time of the apostles, achieved what the Clapham group did in so little time. Underpinning their commitment was an understanding of humanity that made their cause a “non-negotiable.”
Their belief was that, in the divine calculus, every person is a creation of inestimable worth. That meant that all men, regardless of color, race, education, or social class, were entitled to equal treatment and liberty. Thus, human rights were not inventions of man or privileges granted by the state; they were endowments from God to be acknowledged, respected, and defended.
From that fixed platform, the Clapham group launched a movement that changed a nation and fueled the hopes of abolitionists on the distant colonial shores.
Impact on U.S. abolition
In America, the anti-slavery movement began in the 1750s with a group of Quakers who founded and dominated all of the abolition organizations. Initially, the Quakers achieved limited success; but after leaders like Benjamin Franklin encountered Wilberforce and learned of the British anti-slavery initiatives, the movement gained heft.
In 1794, the abolitionist John Jay was sent by George Washington as a presidential envoy to England. While there Jay met Wilberforce, and found in him a kindred spirit. The two carried on a correspondence and partnered in efforts to end the scourge of human trafficking. Little surprise, that within weeks of Britain’s passage of the Slave Trade Act, the U.S. passed a similar measure on March 2, 1807.
Twenty-six years later, when Britain proclaimed freedom for all of its 800,000 slaves, the flickers of the American movement were stoked and its champions fanned the flames with renewed vigor.
Others influenced directly or indirectly by Wilberforce are legion, including John Quincy Adams, James Madison, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, and Abraham Lincoln, who acknowledged that every schoolboy knew of Wilberforce.
Wilberforce’s approach to social change, as told by Eric Metaxas and Kevin Belmonte in their biographies, Amazing Grace and William Wilberforce, holds important lessons for anyone facing the giants of injustice.
As a Parliamentarian, Wilberforce was a bridge-builder. In contrast to leaders who surrounded themselves by like-minded associates and “yes-men,” Wilberforce extended himself to those who disagreed with him. He chose the high road of persuasive argument, rather than the low road, taken all too often today, of personal attack and negative campaigning. By focusing on the merits of the issues rather than on the character of his opponents, Wilberforce built consensus gradually, but steadily.
Wilberforce realized that the spiritual dimensions of a slave economy required spiritual weapons. He devoted himself to prayer, meditation, and Bible study and submitted himself to the counsel of brothers and sisters who shared his faith and vision. Together they exemplified the “Body Model” of the Church. Coordinating the diversity of their skills, experiences, and social placements, they optimized their influence and strategically gained support for abolition and emancipation.
Wilberforce and his friends were also innovators. In what could be called the first example of “issue merchandizing,” they commissioned the master potter Josiah Wedgwood to design a symbol for the movement. Wedgwood crafted a medallion depicting a black figure kneeling with his manacled arms lifted up and pointing to the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?”
The medallion soon became a “must-have” item in British society. The fashionable pendant found its way onto women’s jewelry and ornamental plates, carrying the powerful message with viral rapidity.
But perhaps most importantly, Wilberforce realized that the problem of slavery was beyond any single-issue agenda. Slave trade, as Wilberforce recognized, was but a symptom of a systemic decline in the moral attitudes and behaviors of society. To that end, Wilberforce and his small band sought to restore the moral fabric by raising general biblical literacy through Bible societies and spiritual literature.
They established numerous non-profits to aid those on the margins of society and give greater visibility to their plight. By combining education with demonstration, they hoped to foster civic virtue, civility, and compassion, so that the specter of slavery would never again darken man’s conscience.
Through it all, during five decades of fighting giants and enduring setbacks, Wilberforce maintained the “long view.” He sensed God’s calling in the parallel goals of ending slavery and reforming culture, but trusted God’s sovereignty for their accomplishment. Amid his passion for change was his acceptance that the outcome of his efforts was not up to him, but to God.
Nearly two centuries later a diminutive nun in Calcutta explained: "I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness." With arresting clarity, Mother Theresa expressed what William Wilberforce embodied so many years before -- in God’s eyes, it is not success, but faithfulness that matters.
Church and state
Lastly, Wilberforce didn’t acquiesce with Christian nominalists who, in his words, allotted “religion to a plot of land” and then presumed “a right to roam at will over the spacious remainder”—as do elected officials in our day who proudly vow not to let their private morality influence their public policymaking. Never mind that every policy and every piece of legislation is an attempt to push someone’s moral understanding into the wider culture.
Against the nominalist trend, Wilberforce drew on his Christian faith to stake down the moral dimensions of the debate. With those pegs firmly in place, he addressed the pressing issues of injustice and reform with conviction and eloquence. His persuasive, winsome style won support for the cause while earning him the nickname, “the conscience of Parliament.”
Wilberforce understood, as did the American framers, that a nation must have a transcendent basis. A nation founded on nothing higher than the conventions of man, is a nation whose rule of law reduces to tyranny – either of the iron hand or the 51% vote. Consequently, governments work best when they are not hostile or neutral to religion but, rather, supportive of religion and neutral to religious sects.
At the same time, the church should not make political pronouncements for the state, nor should the state make decisions for the church. Instead, the church should be as Wilberforce modeled “the conscience” of the State, reminding it of its high calling and moral duty. The state, in turn, should protect the church and its right of expression in its pluralistic forms. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained in Ethics, “The Church proclaims the principles of the social and political order, and the state makes available the technical means for putting them into effect.”
Nothing is more foundational to our nation and the liberties we value than the moral tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As John Adams wrote in 1798, “We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Adams put it more plainly in a 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson: “The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.”
Anyone with lingering doubts about the need for a transcendent reference point needs to compare the social changes advanced by Wilberforce with those engineered by the anti-God architects of the last century. On the one hand, the liberation of a million individuals and the end of an industry that enslaved over 10 million others; on the other hand, world wars, gas chambers, death camps, and the gulag with the murder, disappearance, and “re-education” of over 100 million men, women, and children.
Next time, we’ll look at the story of a modern-day Wilberforce.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.