William Wilberforce is rightly remembered as the man who helped set the slaves free. The evangelical Christian and politician is especially honoured this year, since 200 years ago the British Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce was the main impetus behind this stunning achievement.
But Wilberforce (1759-1833) is also known for more than just his work as an abolitionist. He was fully involved in work to reform society and improve morality. In 1787 Wilberforce wrote these words in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners”. Not long after entering Parliament in 1780, he would spend the rest of his life deeply engaged in these two callings.
I have written elsewhere about how Wilberforce was mightily used of God to free the slaves. Here I wish to concentrate on his second life-long ambition: the reformation of manners, or morals. To appreciate the task which he felt called to, one must understand a little bit about the society he was then living in.
Each generation tends to think things are as bad as they can get, but history reminds us that periods of corruption and depravity recur on a regular basis. This was certainly true in Wilberforce’s day. As one author puts it, life in eighteenth-century Britain was “particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar”. Slavery was not the only social evil; there was also “epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, frequent public executions for petty crimes, public dissections and burnings of executed criminals, and unspeakable cruelty to animals”.
The corruption and debauchery was as pronounced among the ruling elites as among the lower classes. Consider just a few of these in more (gory) detail. While King George III was a rare moral exception, most of the other leaders and elites were atrocious rascals. His own son, the Prince of Wales, is said to have bedded 7,000 women. His debts – mainly for gambling – amounted to an incredible 660,000 pounds in 1796.
Many of the Parliamentarians showed up for work drunk. Even the leading political figures of the day such as Pitt, Fox and Sheridan often showed up inebriated. While the wealthy elites soaked up the claret, the poor swam in gin. The country was awash in alcohol and alcoholism.
Prostitution was also a serious problem. A full 25 percent of unmarried women in London were prostitutes. The average age of a prostitute in the capital city during this time was sixteen. Some brothels offered the services of girls who were under fourteen.
Entertainment was pretty horrendous as well back then. Public executions were common. And cruelty to animals was as widespread as it was horrific. Bull-baiting was a common form of public entertainment. Often a large amount of pepper was blown up the bull’s nose to even more enrage the beast. Then a pack of wild dogs were released to attack the bull. Bull-dogs were especially bred for this – hence their name.
Sometimes to make things even more interesting, the hooves of the bull were cut off, leaving the poor beast to get about on bloody stumps. More can be said, but I spare my readers.
It was into this depravity and ugliness that Wilberforce set his attention. He knew that as a believing Christian, he could not just sit by and allow all this to take place. He had to do something. And that he did.
As busy as he was with his abolition campaign, he was equally immersed in the many needed areas of social reform. One society after another was set up to deal with these various social ills. Here are just a few of the many endeavours he initiated or contributed to: The Society for the Suppression of Vice; The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor; The Society for the Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts; The Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline; the Society for Promoting Charity Schools in Ireland; the Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing Boys [chimney sweeps]; and so on.
Altogether he was involved in more than nearly 70 different societies. These dealt with everything from duelling and the lottery to drunkenness and blindness. Education reform, health work, literacy campaigns, prison improvements and voluntary societies were just some of the many activities entered into with zeal and compassion.
Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect (the group of like-minded evangelicals who worked with him) were not just involved in corporate and social charity work. They also were involved in personal relief work, something quite unheard of at the time. Although an aristocrat, Wilberforce regularly gave away huge amounts of his income, often just to needy individuals. One year he gave away 3,000 pounds more than he had earned.
Relief for the needy and suffering was not confined to human beings. Concern for animal welfare was also a big part of the Wilberforce vision. His own home was filled with numerous animals of all types, and he was a founding member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Of course in all these endeavours Wilberforce and his supporters were roundly attacked and condemned. In today’s language they would be called wowsers, do-gooders, moralisers, meddlers, and seeking to impose their morality on the rest of society. Yet they persevered in their activities, and greatly contributed to a more civilised and humane Britain.
Indeed, their achievements were many. Not only was their work to better humankind, but there was also extensive activity undertaken to spread the Christian faith and promote biblical Christianity. Philanthropic and humanitarian work was combined with Christian proclamation and reform.
In the period between 1792 and 1804, as one writer summarises, there was not just the campaign to abolish slavery, but “the organisation of the Sierra Leone colony, the first East India charter struggle, the founding of the Missionary Society, the organisation of the Cheap Repository Tracts, the institution of the Christian Observer, the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the establishment on a wide scale of Sunday schools and other projects of popular education”.
These were tremendously busy and dedicated men and women, in other words. Most held political, professional and commercial responsibilities as well, so much of this activity was done in their spare time, on a voluntary basis, and without government (tax-payer) subsidies. Of course some of it was championed in the halls of Parliament as well.
The work of Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect left a tremendous legacy and influence on Britain and the West. They helped to change the moral climate of a nation. And they knew that this must be a two-pronged approach. The moral conditions of the British public had to be changed, but so too did legislation and the political situation. Political reform alone would not be sufficient; the hearts and minds of people also had to be transformed.
All this was motivated by their Christian conviction that the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ must permeate every area of life. As a result, Wilberforce “replaced an entire world of brutality and misery with another of civility and hope”.
As such, his example is one which all of us need to embrace and follow. Our world today is equally filled with vice and misery, corruption and depravity. Jesus and the early Christians not only ministered to the spiritual needs of individuals, but to their bodily and social needs as well. Wilberforce likewise ministered to the whole person, and so should we.
As another writer puts it, for Wilberforce and his colleagues, “there was no separation between the spiritual realm and the social realm. They were two sides of a coin.” Would that today’s believers take on such a unified vision of the tasks which lay before us. Indeed, would that God raise up a hundred more Wilberforces in our day.