What were the social and political implications of William Wilberforce’s Christian commitment as in the texts you have studied?
WilliamWilberforce (1759-1833) was a politically active abolitionist and devout Christian whose standards of moral conducts and ethical treatment to all persons informed his polemical texts. Wilberforce’s 1797 workA Practical View of the Prevailing ReligiousSystem of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this CountryContrasted with Real Christianity was a popular text when it was published, examining contemporary attitudes to both religion and politics in the highly volatile atmosphere of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries after the French Revolution.
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His famous parliamentary debates and politically motivated writing such as Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807) were integral to the eventual abolition of slavery in Britain. Praised by contemporaries as the ‘Renewer of Society’, Wilberforce’s strong ethical convictions were shaped by his staunch Christian commitment. He was a vocal representative in Parliament who used his political position to pursue his personal objective of a reformation of manners. Whether arguing for the immorality of the slave trade or preaching a good Christian life, Wilberforce sought reform in a society he considered grossly corrupt and immoral, a symptom of the lack of religious commitment in his contemporary society.
It is clear from reading Wilberforce’s writing that heconsidered his campaign against slavery to be very much tied to his notion of Christianmorality. Condemning slavery as an immoral trade, Wilberforce in many waysforeshadowed the growing concern with social well-being which defined a theVictorian era. Wilberforce and his supporters did extensive research of theslave trade, even visiting Africa and examining for themselves claims made byslavers that rather than imprisoning free born men and women to a life of physical labor and sub-standard living conditions, they were, in fact, rescuingwar prisoners and giving them a new life. Wilberforce was instrumental in uncovering the gross and inhuman conditions which were the foundation of the slavetrade.
Wilberforce converted to Christianity in his mid-twenties, and he makes it clear that it was, for him, a defining moment of his life. ‘When I was first awakened to a sense of the importance of Divine things,’ he later wrote to a friend,’ the distressI felt was deep and poignant indeed’ (S. Wilberforce p. 194). Wilberforce is driven by guilt over his past, and it would be natural to say that his fervent campaign for abolition and his strict Christian virtue were compensatory.Reading such texts as A Practical View of Christianity, however, reveals a man driven to change a society he felt was immoral and pitiless.
Wilberforce’s statements of faith are straightforward and polemic, urging his fellow men and women to a similar life of virtue and activism. ‘When summoned to give an account of our stewardship’, he argues, ‘we shall be called upon to answer for the use we have made  of the means of relieving the wants [and the] necessities of others’ (W. Wilberforce p. 174). The importance of a Christian society, rather than emphasis on individual salvation, is integral to understanding Wilberforce’s social and spiritual philosophy. ‘Let everyone regulate his conduct  by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us, and the path of duty will be clear before him’ he wrote (W. Wilberforce pp. 176-7).
It would follow, therefore, that if the ruling state also adhered to the golden rule, their authority would no longer be in doubt and would lead to a more stable political atmosphere. Christian virtues would form the foundation of both religious and secular society in Wilberforce’s model.
Wilberforce’s conversion marked the beginning of his active political career as well. Believing firmly that the new morals, or manners, based on what he termed the ‘peculiar doctrines’ of Christianity rather than a secular ethical system were key to lasting political reformation; for Wilberforce, practical deeds were born in the central doctrines of human depravity, diving judgment, faith itself, the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, and a life devoted to good deeds (Piper).
‘The grand radical defect in the practical system of these nominal Christians,’ Wilberforce argues, ‘is their forgetfulness of all the peculiar doctrines of the Religion which they profess – the corruption of human nature – the atonement of the Savior – the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit’ (W. Wilberforce pp. 162-163). The Christian doctrine of original sin posits that human nature is not progressive; rather, men were created immutable. Poor moral health, therefore, is not a social evolution but rather an unnatural state and Wilberforce’s activism is an attempt to bring people back to a natural moral order (Levy p. 745).
A Practical View of Christianity, published in 1797 over ten years after Wilberforce’s conversion and nearly 16 years after he first entered Parliament, links the effects of moral health to political warfare. He argues in the text that manners, that is, the way in which people act, is directly shaped by these’peculiar doctrines’ of religion. In Wilberforce’s model, religious doctrine is the base for socio-political welfare. Social ills and political turmoil are caused by a lapse in moral health.
If ‘a principle of true Religion should  gain ground, there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare’ (W. Wilberforce p. 211). Wilberforce saw his activity in the political arena, most visibly his strong anti-slavery beliefs, as inseparable from his desire for social reform. He says that he was charged by God to undertake two tasks: the abolition of slavery and the reformation of ‘manners’. Wilberforce’s marriage of church and state had ramifications on both the individual and societal level.
Morality is part ofindividual character; although religious and social mores inform moral choice, ultimately moral structures are derived internally. Wilberforce, however, argues that Christian morality is not an individual choice but rather acollective formation. England’s moral health was in decline, he argues, churchattendancebecause the people had rejected religious doctrine in favor of an internallyderived system of ethics. He writes:
The fatal habit of considering Christian morals asdistinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiardoctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as mightnaturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither anddecay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life andnutriment.” (W. Wilberforce, p. 198).
The eighteenth century schurch attendance, and Wilberforce saw this lapse in active faith as the direct cause of social problems. However, rather than have people return back to the church he envisioned a religious life which would pervade everyday existence. Moral living would enact a greater social change.
Wilberforce, singled out in history for his active role in the abolitionist movement, represents a larger movement which looked to religion to enact social change. The Clapham Sect, of which Wilberforce, was involved, was one such group. Kevin Belmonte believes that theClapham Sect was integral to the eventual abolition of slavery in Britain, and that its missionary and social work effective. ‘It is generally agreed’, andhumaneBelmonte says, ‘that [Wilberforce] and his Clapham Circle colleagues, did more than any other group of political reformers to make Britain a mand humanesociety’ (Belmonte).
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It is important to remember that, although Wilberforce is often remember in history for his social activism driven by his strong religious convictions, he is not an exception in his age but rather representative of a larger concern for social welfare which came to public consciousness at the end of the eighteenth century and continued to dominate the Victorian age.
Wilberforce believed that socialwelfare began with the individual, and his life was an example thereof. Heregularly donated large portions of his income to the poor, going so far as tosay that ‘by careful management, I should be able to give at least one-quarterof my income to the poor’ (Everett p. 68). It was reported that one year hegave 3000 more to charity than he actually earned in the year. ClearlyWilberforce believes that charity begins in the home, but his marriage ofindividual charity and social activism was considered a political act.
Wilberforce considered wealth in and of itself as ‘acceptable’ but as ‘highly dangerous possessions; and [are to be considered] not as instruments of luxury or splendor, but as affording the means of honoring his heavenly Benefactor, and lessening the miseries of mankind’ (W. Wilberforce). This typifies Wilberforce’s notion of Christian commitment: by adhering to Christian tenets regarding the dangers of riches and duty towards one’s fellow man, Wilberforce is able to politicize the Golden Rule to enact large-scale social change.
Piper, John. ‘Peculiar Doctrines, PublicMorals, and the Political Welfare: Reflections on
the Life andLabor of William Wilberforce’ Bethlehem Conferencefor Pastors, February 5, 2002. < http://www.desiringgod.org/library/biographies/02wilberforce.html>access 18 February 2006.
Belmonte, Kevin. Herofor Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce (NavPress, 2002).
Everett, Betty Steele.Freedom Fighter: The Story of William Wilberforce (Fort Washington,PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1994), p. 68.
Levy, David M andPeart, Sandra J. ‘Who are the Canters?’ The Coalition of Evangelical-Economic Egalitarians History ofPolitical Economy 35.4 (2003), pp. 731-757.
Wilberforce, Samuel. The Life ofWilliam Wilberforce, (John Murray, 1838), vol. 3.
Wilberforce, William.A Practical View of Christianity, ed. by Kevin Charles Belmonte (Peabody,MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996)
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