“With regards to myself, I have nothing whatsoever to urge, but the poor Publican’s plea, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”” – William Wilberforce, July 11, 1833 – eighteen days before his death.Quoted in William Wilberforce by Robert Furneaux, Regent College Publishing, 2005 edition, p. 453.
“IN AN AGE AND COUNTRY FERTILE IN GREAT AND GOOD MEN,
HE WAS AMONG THE FOREMOST WHO FIXED THE CHARACTER OF THEIR TIMES
BECAUSE TO HIGH AND VARIOUS TALENTS,
TO WARM BENEVOLENCE, AND TO UNIVERSAL CANDOUR,
HE ADDED THE ABIDING ELOQUENCE OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE.
EMINENT AS HE WAS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC LABOUR,
AND A LEADER IN EVERY WORK OF CHARITY,
WHETHER TO RELIEVE THE TEMPORAL OR SPIRITUAL WANTS OF HIS FELLOW MEN
HIS NAME WILL BE SPECIALLY IDENTIFIED
WITH THOSE EXERTIONS
WHICH, BY THE BLESSING OF GOD, REMOVED FROM ENGLAND
THE GUILT OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE,
AND PREPARED THE WAY FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY
IN EVERY COLONY OF THE EMPIRE…Excerpt from the epitaph inscribed on the base of Wilberforce’s statue in Westminster Abbey
We occasionally find instances of national repentance accompanied by a substantial change of culture and society in the Bible. With one exception, they occurred in ancient Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. They also came “from the top down”, so to speak, being initiated primarily by royal decree.
The one prominent Biblical example of a Gentile nation repenting is found in the Book of Jonah, when, to Jonah’s chagrin, the pagan Assyrians, the most terrible aggressors and terrors of the ancient Near East in the ninth to seventh centuries BCE, listened to Jonah, an Israelite prophet, and repented in sackcloth and ashes. The Assyrians begged the mercy and forgiveness of the “God of Heaven” – Israel’s God – lest they be brought to death and utter ruin. From the evidence of archeology and Biblical scholarship, the Book of Jonah appears to be authentic to the culture and historical and religious context of the period 785-770 BCE, when it is best dated.
In the History of the West where “Christendom” once prevailed, we find that the same sort of “top-down” leadership seems necessary for a nation to truly turn around (“repent”) from its dissolute and destructive course. There may be an exception or two out there, but they do not come to mind as I write this. Our previous case study of Germany started that way.
This post will consider the seismic shift which occurred in English and British culture beginning in the late 18th and on into the first half of the 19th Centuries.
For the last hundred years it has been easy and fashionable to satirise and even mock the “Victorian Era” as a funless, humorless age when official morality and censoriousness stifled personal self-expression. Asked for one-word descriptions of British culture in that century, we frequently hear pundits and commentators use “prudish”, “intolerant”, and “racist”.
Without debating the justice of such sobriquets, what is the “real deal” about why Britain moved into such a morally and socially “unprogressive” (by anachronistic 21st Century standards) state? It’s very hard for people such as ourselves to wrap our heads around the answer, and many, perhaps even a majority of post-Christian, post-modern Westerners are likely incapable of crediting it. I suspect that even many professing Christians of our time accept the now stereotypical characterization of that age in Britain and much of the West as supremely judgmental and closed-minded, following Britain’s lead.
Given our opening quotes, the reader will justly suspect that the answer I propose has to do with William Wilberforce. That extraordinary Englishman, still venerated in the former British colonies in the Caribbean as “the Great Liberator” (although there is strong resistance to that description even there now) and entombed in Westminster Abbey, the ultimate recognition of national greatness in Great Britain, certainly played a huge role in the dual transformation of the general British society and the British Empire of his time and several generations following, with remnants of that change still functioning.
Here is an illustration of our age’s revulsion from the whole ethos that produced that moral and social revolution. Not long ago my beloved and I were viewing an episode of the BBC series “The History of Britain”. The episode was concerned with the late 18th and early 19th Century. The eminent British historian narrating was fascinated by the rise of Romanticism and the ferment produced by the French Revolution and the beginnings of the struggle of the working class and women for rights. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: “But what about slavery and the slave trade? What about the movement for moral transformation that was paired with it? What about that, Simon?”
It was fine to analyse those other aspects of the age, but the absence of the number one internal imperial issue had become a yawning abyss. Then, just as the episode was ending, the slaves were suddenly free and there was a nod in the direction of “the Church and the Chapels” as somehow having had something to do with it. And that was all! Astonishing!
William Wilberforce and his and his monumental group effort and their prodigious forty-year campaign were invisible. Not a word about the man declared “the greatest living Englishman” all over Europe during his lifetime, and the “the greatest Englishman of the 19th Century” later by the considered opinion of British historians! How does a first-rank historian deliberately neglect and avoid something so enormous in a well-regarded media production? How does it slide by the BBC, let alone the great mass of modern media-consumers undetected?
I see this neglect as a manifestation of both the modernist materialist perspective that moral and spiritual motivations cannot be true primary causes of any great change, but are masks, disguises for power, money, and reason, which are always the underlying real motivators of any group and individual claiming they are acting for moral and spiritual reasons. Now we also add the fear of offending someone or other if we let the old Christian influence back into the public sphere in any way – even if only by recognition of its previous importance in public and private life, perhaps for fear and horrific idea that we might see it come back.
Today in this blog is not the place to debate this. Today we are merely noting that in the England and British Empire of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the moral and spiritual motivations manifested themselves as the determining forces in excising the most pernicious practice of that age, and perhaps of all history, from the commercial, social, and moral fabric of the then greatest power on earth. The influence of that mighty work led to a radical (in the true sense of “right to the root”) transformation which percolated into political and social progress of the most substantial kind, changes which launched the very progressive world we have come to expect, with a social conscience and expectation that it is the job of rulers to seek the general welfare and to reach a helping hand to the most downtrodden.
All of this is an enormous topic. Repentance was at its core, and actions following testified to the reality. All luminary claims that these immense changes stemmed from the Enlightenment, shunting the obscurantist “religious enthusiasts” to the side as obstructing rather than leading in all these struggles are irrelevant to the actual historical record.
Guilty conscience over the terrible inhumanity and atrocious degradation of whole sectors of humanity based on race and class had to be reawakened, and the powerful brought to shame and acceptance of guilt – at least a critical mass thereof. It was the work of William Wilberforce and his growing army of collaborators who undertook this impossible-looking task. And they won the hearts of the masses along the way with their practical demonstration and savvy campaign strategies.
We will not rehash this story. It is extremely well documented and remains readily available and researchable for any who care to seek it out.
Like every long-lived nation and society, England and Great Britain have many sins and failings to repent of, and some they have. In this instance, it was done and, on the whole, well done, although, of course, not perfectly.
The story of real revolution that makes change deep and long-lasting is not that of political violence and upheaval mass vengeance taken by under-classes against elites and overlords. That is the usual picture of history, but the universal record of such reversals is the eventual, and usually quite precipitate replacement of one set of tyrants by a new set and a new regime just as monstrous, if not moreso, as the old soon oppressing the new underclass.
In his England in 1815: The History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Elie Halevy, an eminent French historian (1870-1937) declared that England was spared the terrible upheaval of revolution and class warfare which had swept Europe because of the virtually miraculous transformation of its society through the efforts and influence of its Christian reformers. Although a pretty small minority, they were the leaven in the lump which allowed the English to ride out the waves of violence and mass destruction and slaughter and emerge as the world’s superpower. Halevy was a Jew, not a Christian. His “objective” analysis and interpretation (as objective as any could be, at any rate) was widely accepted, although it has since been drowned out by a more “rational, scientific” way of seeing things through “hard facts and statistics”.
The trouble with facts, statistics or other, is that their interpretation is always through the lens of worldview. But in the case of England’s repentance and transformation, the statistics point even more powerfully to the power of the spirit operating within the reformers than to a “hard-nosed” argument from economic and political “inevitability”.
Next time, Canada in the Dock.