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Sunday 12 October 2008

History: The Problem with William...

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 1st August 2007

William Wilberforce
At their AGM, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards enthused about nineteenth century British antislavery campaigner, William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Is this defying all logic, or is it the result of selective history? Yes and no.

Wilberforce was indeed an evangelical Christian. After his conversion in 1784, he became involved as the parliamentary liaison for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which had been founded by a Quaker network at about the same time, but rapidly became ecumenical in scope. Even given its liberal establishment support, abolition was pitted against entrenched commercial interests, and was not to prove easy to achieve.

Undaunted, Wilberforce introduced his first antislavery bill into the House of Commons in 1791, which failed, but he perservered, winning additional supporters in 1792 and 1793. He nearly succeeded in 1804, and in 1807, there was an incremental breakthrough. The House of Lords introduced a bill against collaboration with the Napoleonic French colonies and their participation in the slave trade, which passed. With this measure, full abolition was finally plausible, even if the Slavery Abolition Act was only passed in July 1833, nearly one month after Wilberforce's death.

Evangelicals are justifiably proud of this figure. There are certainly organisations like World Vision who do comparable work in the field of humanitarian and disaster relief who are Wilberforce's true descendants. But the Society for Promotion of Community Standards...???

To be sure though, Wilberforce had a darker side as well. Wilberforce was also a strong opponent of remedial and ameliorative measures for trade union representation that would have eased the exploitation of the urban working class in his native Britain. His Combination Act 1799 suppressed all union activity for better pay, humane working conditions and sociable working hours.

And then there was Wilbeforce's more conventional fundamentalist side. In 1787, George III had issued a "Royal Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality." This led to the establishment of a fundamentalist Proclamation Society, which mutated in the Society for Suppression of Vice in 1803. The SSV was a rabid opponent of free speech, urging repressive political and religious censorship against republican, atheist and/or provision of contraception and information about sex education. It lobbied against stamp tax relief to provide obstacles for publications that promoted vice and political dissent, but remained active throughout the nineteenth century, eventually narrowing its core mission down to attacking sex education and contraception.

Predictably, David Lane got the above garbled when he suggested that SPCS and other fundamentalists were the true heirs of Wilberforce. Why? Ah, well, Wilberforce had personal piety, excellent campaign tactics, evidence-based research, philantrhopy and perserverance in his antislavery campaigning. And then Dave had a wish-fulfillment fantasy about a never-never fantasy future that was anti-abortion and still had repressive censorship policies.

What is one to make of all this? Granted, Wilberforce was a great humanitarian, and evangelicals can be justifiably proud of his work to abolish the great historical evil of slavery. However, we should not engage in excessively romantic celebration of someone's life because of particular virtues. He was seriously wrong when it came to exploitation of the working class and what we would consider draconian penalties against free speech, and that was part of his life too.

Added to which, the nineteenth century was not our own. During that period of British (and colonial) history, evangelical Christianity had rival impulses within it, one which sought to organise nongovernmental charities to ameliorate the worst social justices of its day and provide medical and educational help to the victims of exploitation, abuse and oppression, as in the antislavery movement, charity legislation and prevention of cruelty to children and animals. However, there was another tendency, which sought to repress others behaviour through imposing abstract moral codes on them without any thought for practicality, as in the case of alcohol temperance and pro-censorship campaigning. In the end, this tendency won out.

Nineteenth century evangelical humanitarians were not the same as their twenty first century fundamentalist activist 'descendants.' I daresay some evangelical children's welfare campaigners of the nineteenth century would have been utterly repulsed at the rabid pro-belting campaign of the New Zealand Christian Right this year, for example.

When it comes to social injustice, the Christian Right either ignores it altogether, or strives to do everything to perpetuate such injustices. Wilberforce had saving graces- his counterparts today have none.


William Hague: William Wilberforce: Life of the Great Antislavery Campaigner: London: HarperPress: 2007.

M.J.D. Roberts: Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England: 1787-1886: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2004
Craig Young - 1st August 2007