"God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners."
William Wilberforce had two goals for his life: the abolition of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners. Last week I shared with you the seven principles which his biographer, John Pollock, summarized to show how his life made such a difference.
Wilberforce (and his friends) did indeed change his times by abolishing the Slave Trade; but he was also simultaneously responsible for the reformation of manners, i.e. to remake England. This second part of his mission was carried out in tandem with his abolition campaign.
When I think of "manners," I think of the qualities of being courteous, polite, not talking with food in my mouth, and opening the car door for Evie. These "manners" grow out of our respect and even compassion for those we care about.
For Wilberforce, his campaign for the reformation of manners grew out of his compassion but it was a deep compassion for humankind. As Pollock says, "Too many men and women were hanged. Venality, drunkenness, and the high crime rate arose from the general decadence, especially the corruption and irreligion of the trendsetters, not in those days pop stars and media moguls, but the nobility and landed gentry."
"The 'high civilization' of eighteenth century England was built," according to Pollock, "on the Slave Trade, mass poverty, child labor, and political corruption in high places... Wilberforce set out to change the country by changing the moral climate, making goodness fashionable, and restoring respect for the law in all classes."
Wilberforce revived the Society for the Reformation of Manners which had been quite effective during the reign of William and Mary. In order to encourage genuine Christian faith, Wilberforce wrote a big book, A Practical View (of true faith as contrasted with its contemporary imitation). It became a best-seller. Wilberforce also brought out "launchers," phrases and gambits to use at dinner parties to turn the talk to deeper directions.
At one time Wilberforce was active in sixty-nine different initiatives though the call of the slaves always came first. He was always on the side of the poor and because of his great love for animals, he founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The influence of Wilberforce went way beyond his death. His reformation of manners grew into Victorian virtues and he touched the world when he made goodness fashionable. A half a century after he died, British public life became famous for its emphasis on character, morals and justice and the British business world famous for integrity.
In the process the Bible became the best-loved book of the newly literate. Christian attitudes molded British character, a Christian social conscience attacked abuses left by the more pagan age that coincided with the early Industrial Revolutions, and Christian compassion relieved its victims.
I am grateful for a small booklet published by "The Trinity Forum" (which captures the highlights of Pollock's biography) for introducing me to this incredible world-changer. According to Pollock, "By his last years, Wilberforce's name was said to be the greatest name in the land."
Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey. Two royal dukes, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and four peers were the pallbearers.
All of us want to make a different with our lives. Even the neighborhood hoodlum grabs cans of spray paint to inscribe letters and symbols on cold concrete walls to tell everyone the simple message "I was here." Whether we build a cathedral, plant a tree or teach a class, we all want to leave a mark.
As the businessman said to J. Douglas Holladay, "It's easy to make a fortune, but harder to make a difference." William Wilberforce made a difference and he indeed changed his times.
Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President of
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
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