Monday, July 30, 2007

William Wilberforce and Public Christianity


In his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “Creedal Christianity allows the Christian to embrace both the body and the spirit, to pursue both internal transformation through prayer and the transformation of society through prophetic engagement” [(Doubleday, 2003), p. 314].

The life of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), whose feast day is today, exemplifies this truth very well.

James Kiefer summarizes the highlights far better than I can:


William Wilberforce was born in 1759 and served in Parliament from 1780 to 1825. A turning point in his religious life was a tour of Europe. In the luggage of a travelling companion he saw a copy of William Law’s book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. He asked his friend, “What is this?” and received the answer, “One of the best books ever written.” The two of them agreed to read it together on the journey, and Wilberforce embarked on a lifelong program of setting aside Sundays and an interval each morning on arising for prayer and religious reading. He considered his options, including the clergy, and was persuaded by Christian friends that his calling was to serve God through politics. He was a major supporter of programs for popular education, overseas missions, parliamentary reform, and religious liberty. He is best known, however, for his untiring commitment to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. He introduced his first anti-slavery motion in the House of Commons in 1788, in a three-and-a-half hour oration that concluded: “Sir, when we think of eternity and the future consequence of all human conduct, what is there in this life that shall make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice and the law of God!”

The motion was defeated. Wilberforce brought it up again every year for eighteen years, until the slave trade was finally abolished on 25 March 1806. He continued the campaign against slavery itself, and the bill for the abolition of all slavery in British territories passed its crucial vote just four days before his death on 29 July 1833. A year later, on 31 July 1834, 800,000 slaves, chiefly in the British West Indies, were set free.


Wilberforce’s tireless work in Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade is a fine example of how Christian faith and politics can work together for the good of humanity.

Wilberforce was also very concerned about Christian formation (a topic I’ve expressed concerns about before). Here’s a relevant excerpt from his Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797):


It may be proper to point out the very inadequate conception which [the bulk of professed Christians] entertain of the importance of Christianity in general, of its peculiar nature, and superior excellence. If we listen to their conversation, virtue is praised, and vice is censured; piety is perhaps applauded, and profaneness condemned. So far all is well. But let any one, who would not be deceived by these barren generalities, examine a littler more closely, and he will find, that not to Christianity in particular, but at best to religion in general, perhaps to mere morality, their homage is intended to be paid. With Christianity, as distinct from these, they are little acquainted; their views of it have been so cursory and superficial, that far from discerning its peculiar characteristics, they have little more than perceived those exterior circumstances which distinguish it from other forms of religion. There are some few facts, and perhaps some leading doctrines and principles, of which they cannot be wholly ignorant; but of the consequences and relations, and practical uses of these, they have few ideas, or none at all.

Does this language seem too strong? View their plan of life and their ordinary conduct; and let us ask, wherein can we discern the points of discrimination between them and professed unbelievers? In an age wherein it is confessed and lamented that infidelity abounds, do we observe in them any remarkable care to instruct their children in the principles of the faith which they profess, and to furnish them with arguments for the defence of it? They would blush, on their child’s coming out into the world, to think him defective in the branch of that knowledge, or of those accomplishments, which belong to his station in life; and, accordingly, these are cultivated with becoming assiduity. But he is left to collect his religion as he may: the study of Christianity has formed no part of his education; and his attachment to it, where any attachment to it exists at all, is too often, not the preference of sober reason and conviction, but merely the result of early and groundless pre-possession. He was born in a Christian country; of course he is Christian: - his father was a member of the Church of England; so is he. When such is the religion handed down among us by hereditary succession, it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether of the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, and ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend. Knowing Christianity chiefly in the difficulties which it contains, and in the impossibilities which are falsely imputed to it, they fall, perhaps, into the company of infidels; where they are shaken by frivolous objections and profane cavils, which, had their religious persuasion been grounded in reason and argument, would have passed by them as the idle wind.

Let us beware before it is too late.

[Quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 140-142.]


Wilberforce’s critique of Christianity “by hereditary succession” predates Søren Kierkegaard’s blistering Attack Upon “Christendom” (1854-1855) by 57 years. And even after 210 years, his concern about the disparity between a lukewarm commitment to religious formation for our children on the one hand, and our insistence that they work hard and achieve in other areas (school, sports, etc.) on the other, are deeply relevant.

In the face of injustice, William Wilberforce refused to keep his Christian faith a merely private affair. He understood that taking Christianity seriously means taking the risk of going public with it. And so he lived the New Testament injunction to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). That makes Wilberforce a powerful model for what it means to live our baptismal covenant vows to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “respect the dignity of every human being” [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305].

You can learn more about William Wilberforce by reading this article, and you can listen to an audio clip on his life and legacy here.

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UPDATE 11/23/07

It's been almost 4 months since I first posted this piece, but tonight I finally watched the movie Amazing Grace. It was a very good and enjoyable film. I don't pretend to be a movie critic, but with the exception of some scenes from the beginning of the film that connect Wilberforce's faith in God to nature, the role that Wilberforce's Christian faith played in his dogged opposition to the slave trade is edited out of the story.

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