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William Wilberforce, his campaign for the ‘Reform of Manners’ and his book ‘A Practical View’ by Peter Moore.
Recently I was set the task of presenting a lecture on William Wilberforce’s classic work and personal manifesto A Practical View (the complete title: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity.) I hope it might inspire you to read something of this book, and Wilberforce’s approach to his life as a British politician.
When he was converted to evangelical Christianity at the age of 25, Wilberforce found himself believing in God, and holding theological convictions that were minority views amongst the clergy of his day. He realised as a leader of society, and a prominent MP, he ought to do something with these convictions.
For two years, he grappled with this, at first rather grimly, but then with an increasingly obvious joy. As his naturally happy spirits returned, and as he continued to reflect on God’s will for himself and his country, two great projects came to him. First was his famous resolution to give himself to the abolition of the slave trade. But secondly, and perhaps less well known, the young evangelical resolved to conduct a campaign for the reformation of the morals of his age. Perhaps it is not so surprising that in a country dominated by such a corrupt established church, that it was Wilberforce - a ‘mere’ Anglican layman – who took these issues on.
In any event, on 28th October 1787 Wilberforce summed all this up in his journal ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners' (1). The rest of this paper is concerned with how Wilberforce went about this second object: the reformation of the ‘manners’, or morals of his age.
a. The campaign for the reformation of ‘manners’
Wilberforce’s campaign began with the help of the Prime Minister and dear personal friend, William Pitt (left) in encouraging George III to reissue the Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality which like his predecessors since William and Mary, George had issued when he became King. In the case of William and Mary it had meant something and had been followed up with real social action but since then it had become a form rather than a matter of significance. However, in the reissued form the King included a new Preamble, noting
"the rapid progress of impiety and licentiousness, and that deluge of profaneness, immorality and every kind of vice which, to the scandal of our holy religion, and to the evil example of our loving subjects, have broken upon this nation: We, therefore ... have thought fit, by the advice of our Privy Council, to issue this our Royal Proclamation, and do hereby declare our Royal purpose and resolution to discountenance and punish all manner of vice, profaneness and immorality, in all persons, of whatever degree or quality, within this Realm, and particularly in such as are employed near our Royal Person. . ." (2)
The proclamation then followed the previously used forms, but of course, if they were to be actually adopted in substance, they would result in a transformed England. The first paragraph required
"that all people of honour or authority should set a good example themselves and help reform “persons of dissolute and debauched lives”. The King's subjects were forbidden to play cards or dice on the Lord's Day and should attend divine worship. Judges, sheriffs and justices were to be “very vigilant and strict in the discovery and eventual prosecution of all persons who should be guilty of excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, or other immoral and dissolute practices” and must suppress disorderly houses and “all loose and licentious prints, books and publications dispersing poison in the minds of the young and unwary and to punish the publishers and vendors thereof . . .” (3)
Next came Wilberforce’s campaign to establish a mechanism for enforcing these ideas. He canvassed and gained the support of leading figures who comprised with him a ‘Proclamation Society’ much as had happened in the day of William and Mary. One of the chief roles for the society would be the prosecution of crimes (which at the time were not a concern of the state, but had to be done by victims or private citizens: hard to do unless you were wealthy.) The society would also place political pressure on Magistrates to conduct themselves with legal diligence. Generally there would be a campaign for moral reform.
Wilberforce did all this while resisting the temptation to make this a thoroughly religious movement. He felt it would be shrewd to gain leadership in all this from the irreligious and even those who themselves breached the Proclamation’s standards. However the driving force in the Proclamation society would be fellow evangelicals like Edward Eliot, Hannah More and the like. (4)
Although Wilberforce was mocked and opposed by some, the society and its work struck a chord in many places in England. Many magistrates were clearly dissatisfied with the current state of the land, and they rose to the challenge of imposing a more morally sound justice within their provinces. Hannah More wrote two important books addressed to the leading classes of England, and along with Wilberforce’s Practical View (to which we will come soon) this struck a chord too, and as many of the drinking houses were reformed and licensing laws tightened, more of the masses, and even some aristocrats began to go to Sunday church! Lean at least, attributes the moral rigour of the Victorian age to all this. In the years that followed, many of the children of aristocrats (including Princess Victoria), rebelled against their parents’ depravities and, despairing of what their parents’ irreligion had produced, began to take Christian teaching and morality seriously.
b. Wilberforce’s manifesto
Within two or three years after Wilberforce found his vision for the reformation of the nation’s ‘manners’ – at least by 1789 - he considered the writing of a personal manifesto. However at this early stage he rejected the idea, for he was sensitive to the possibility that ‘dread of an over-righteous man would deter people’ and thinking here especially of his friend Pitt, but also the King himself. (5) Pitt – and of course the king – had been crucial in Wilberforce’s first step in seeking the reissue of the Proclamation which took place on 1st June 1787. If the Proclamation were to have its intended effect, it was vital that it not be compromised by any taint of religious enthusiasm.
By the middle of the next decade, the tide had shifted towards publication. The danger of undermining the work of the Proclamation Society had passed, and now Wilberforce’s chief concern was to be heard for the evangelical Christian that he was. He believed that it was imperative that his ideology be made plain to his countrymen, but particularly it seems, to his fellow Parliamentarians. Wilberforce believed that unless the heart of England was changed by the gospel, its outward moral condition could not be made healthy.
The primary audience to which he addressed his book were the leading members of society and the middle class (as evidenced by the book’s title.) He states his purpose plainly in the Introduction
The main object which he has in view is, not to convince the Sceptic, or to answer the arguments of persons who avowedly oppose the fundamental doctrines of our Religion; but to point out the scanty and erroneous system of the bulk of those who belong to the class of orthodox Christians, and to contrast their defective scheme with a representation of what the author apprehends to be real Christianity. Often has it filled him with deep concern, to observe in this description of persons, scarcely any distinct knowledge of the real nature and principles of the religion which they profess. The subject is of infinite importance; let it not be driven out of our minds by the bustle or dissipations of life. This present scene, and all its cares and all its gaieties, will soon be rolled away, and "we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ." This awful consideration will prompt the writer to express himself with greater freedom than he should otherwise be disposed to use. This consideration he trusts, also, will justify his frankness, and will secure him a serious and patient perusal.
Thus, A Practical View was one of the rudest books written in its day, for it accuses the great bulk of English middle and upper classes of being false Christians, and indeed no Christians at all (6). Initially Wilberforce’s publisher was diffident about the likely success of the book. Even his old mentor Isaac Milner had tried to dissuade him from it because he thought it a lost cause. However Wilberforce pressed on with the plan, and the publisher was finally willing to do a print run of 500 copies, provided Wilberforce put his name on it.
However right from the very beginning the book was a tremendous success. The first print run sold out in days, and within 6 months, there had been 5 different editions and a total of 7500 copies sold, which in those days made it a best-seller.
From the early days it was read and reprinted in great numbers in North America and in India. By 1826 it had gone through 25 editions, and had been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. In 1838 his sons Robert and Samuel wrote that ‘Its circulation was at that time altogether without precedent’ (7).
Here are some other responses to the book.
I deem it the most valuable and important publication of the present age… I shall be glad to look to you (at least to your book)… to strengthen my motives for running the uncertain remainder of my race with alacrity. [John Newton]
[A Practical View has given me]… unspeakable comfort… If I live, I shall thank Wilberforce for having sent such a book into the world. [Edmund Burke having spent most of his final two days reading it]
[For the first time I] understood the vital character of personal religion, the corruption of the human heart and the way of salvation through Jesus Christ [Legh Richmond, leading evangelical, about his reading of the book when he was a somewhat worldly curate on the Isle of Wight]
c. Only one true Christianity
I have explained that the main theme of the book is that there is only one true form of Christianity, and that is not the nominal and comfortable religion of the bulk of Englishmen, but rather evangelical Christianity, which takes seriously the Bible and its doctrines of sin, judgment, and salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. To give you a taste of the argument, let me quote from the beginning of the final chapter, where Wilberforce sums up much of what he has argued.
Thus have we endeavoured to trace the chief defects of the religious system of the bulk of professed Christians in this country. We have pointed out their low idea of the importance of Christianity in general; their inadequate conceptions of all its leading doctrines, and the effect hereby naturally produced in relaxing the strictness of its practical system; more than all, we have remarked on their grand fundamental misconception of its genius and essential nature. Let not therefore the difference between them and true believers be considered as a minute difference; as a question of forms or opinions. The question is of the very substance of Religion; the difference is of the most serious and momentous amount. We must speak out. _Their Christianity is not Christianity._ It wants the radical principle. It is mainly defective in all the grand constituents. Let them no longer then be deceived by names in a matter of infinite importance: but with humble prayer to the Source of all wisdom, that he would enlighten their understandings, and clear their hearts from prejudice; let them seriously examine by the Scripture standard their real belief and allowed practice, and they will become sensible of the shallowness of their scanty system (8).
d. Some conclusions – lessons we can learn
Having thought about his life and, of course, having read the book, in the last few weeks, (and with the recent Australian Federal Election season in mind) I thought it would be helpful to offer with some lessons that I have drawn from Wilberforce in his Christian engagement with politics as an MP.
First, Wilberforce was a man of tact, and could be shrewd in his handling of reform. In his efforts to correct the manners of his country through the Proclamation Society, he took care not to taint the society with any obvious connection to religious enthusiasm. Thus, in a way, he concealed something of his own Christian motives in this work. However he still acted with integrity for his goals for the society were always open, and were shared by his partners, even if they did not share his theological convictions.
On the other hand (and here is our second point), Wilberforce refused to act corruptly through trading influence. Thus he would not support a measure in Parliament, for which he had no taste, merely for the sake of gaining support from its promoters, for one of Wilberforce’s own projects. Wilberforce believed this was a corrupt way of operating, for it required legislators to support measures they considered evil. This is consistent with his being an independent in Parliament, and so not captive to party loyalties.
Third, this independence gained him the reputation he needed to address the Parliament and its leaders, and the ruling class of his country, on moral issues, and to take them to task for their corruption. It earned him the persona of ‘conscience of the nation’ and had a happy correspondence with his own naturally pleasant manner, which made him such an attractive conversationalist and delightful orator.
Fourth, his unprepared, conversational rhetorical style in parliament, tended to support the fact that it was his unvarnished personhood, his real sweetness and integrity that persuaded people rather than any art or pretence.
Fifth, it seems to me that part of his need for this manifesto – and I note here in particular that there were things in the book which he felt he had not been able to tell his friends, (even a friend as good as Pitt) – came from the fact that though this book must have been one of the most insulting books of its time, that Wilberforce was not an angular person: he loved people and his natural impulse was to please and encourage them rather than insult and rebuke them.
Sixth, it was imperative to Wilberforce that he was known clearly to be a Christian, and in a sense he could not rest until not only his Christian identity as a whole but also his Christian convictions were known in detail. Writing to Newton he says:
I cannot help saying it is a great relief to my mind to have published what I may call my manifesto; to have plainly told my worldly acquaintance what I think of their system and conduct, and where it must end. I own I shall act in my parliamentary situation with more comfort and satisfaction than hitherto (9).
Seventh, he believed that Christianity produces great moral and cultural fruit, but that once those moral benefits are experienced, a society can continue to enjoy them for a time ‘as far as external appearances are concerned’ (10), even when the Christianity on which they are based, has fallen out of favour. Thus any right evaluation of the ‘Christian’ state of a nation cannot afford to simply study externals.
Eighth, wealth and prosperity tend to hasten the decline of Christian convictions but ultimately when the Christian profession of a nation decays, its peace and prosperity is lost.
Ninth, that ‘true Christianity, from its essential nature, is peculiarly and powerfully adapted to the preservation and health of political communities’ by healing society’s major sickness: selfishness. ‘The opposite to selfishness is public spirit, which may be termed the underlying principle of political life. It is the very breath of states, which serves to keep them active and vigorous and to carry them to greatness and glory' (11). On the other hand, ‘selfishness… is the mortal illness of political communities' (12).
Tenth, the best way to pursue a healthy state and society, is ‘to cultivate… real Christianity… since humanly speaking, we must either have this or nothing. Unless [real Christianity] can be in some degree restored, we are likely to lose not only all the advantages which we might have derived from true Christianity, but also to incur the manifold evils which the absence of all religion would bring’ (13).
Eleventh, civilisation by itself, without Christianity undergirding it, is not safe from ‘depravity’, and Wilberforce offered the barbarism of revolutionary France as the best example of this.
Twelfth, ‘as in physics, so in morals; unless the original source is raised it will be futile to expect a subsequent flow to be on a high level…’(14). Thus there can be no high level of social conduct and political health, without ‘evangelical Christianity’ undergirding it. Christianity must also not be permitted to simply subside and be reduced to a system of ethics.
In conclusion, ‘the best wish that can be made for [any] country, by one who is deeply anxious for its welfare’ (15) is for true evangelical Christian religion to prosper and spread its influence.
True to his convictions, Wilberforce engaged actively in evangelism. When he died, there was found amongst his papers a ‘Friends Paper’ which listed names for 30 people he was currently evangelising (16). It was marked with a heading indicating that Wilberforce tried to reflect on the list each Sunday to consider how he might move his friends forward in a journey towards faith!
In the end then, though it seemed odd to me when I first read it, I agree with the entry for Wilberforce, in Chambers Dictionary of World History. It sums him up with the description ‘British politician, evangelist and philanthropist’ (17).
Perhaps this is a model of how all gospel loving Christians should see ourselves: after getting nationality and ‘occupation’ out of the way, we should be at our most basic level, evangelists and philanthropists. We do love our neighbour and our country, and we do it by presenting the gospel whenever and wherever we can.
Peter Moore is a lecturer at Presbyterian Theological Centre - Sydney Australia.
AMusA, LLB(Hons) Syd, BTh (Hons), DipArts(Theol) (Hons), MTh ACT
1. Garth Lean, God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980), 37-43.
2. Lean, God's Politician, 76.
3. Lean, God's Politician, 76.
4. Lean, God's Politician, 77-78.
5. Lean, God's Politician, 123. Wilberforce’s list of reasons ‘pro’ and ‘con’ for such a book are published in William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, ed. Kevin Charles Belmonte, Hendrickson Christian Classics (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1897, 1995), 279-81.
6. I think its ruder by far, than Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto for these middle and upper classes genuinely believed they were Christians.
7. Listed in an excerpt in Appendix 2 to Wilberforce, Practical View - Belmonte, 287.
8. William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, ed. Vincent Edmunds, Hodder & Stoughton Christian Classics (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1797, 1989), 150. My emphasis. See also 62-3, 76-7, 80ff, 96.
9. From a letter to Newton on 19 April, 1797 Wilberforce, Practical View - Belmonte, 285. In my own experience in life, the earlier I have been able to tell ‘worldly associates’ about my Christian faith, the easier it has been to act for them in love and with a good conscience.
10. Wilberforce, Practical View - Edmunds, 134.
11. Wilberforce, Practical View - Edmunds, 143.
12. Wilberforce, Practical View - Edmunds, 144.
13. Wilberforce, Practical View - Edmunds, 145-6.
14. Wilberforce, Practical View - Edmunds, 148.
15. Wilberforce, Practical View - Edmunds, 149.
16. Lean, God's Politician, 111.
17. "William Wilberforce," in Chambers Dictionary of World History, ed. Bruce P Lennan and Trevor Anderson (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2000). My emphasis.
Lean, Garth. God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980.
Wilberforce, William. A Practical View of Christianity. Edited by Kevin Charles Belmonte, Hendrickson Christian Classics. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1897, 1995. This is the original text.
———. A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity. Edited by Vincent Edmunds, Hodder & Stoughton Christian Classics. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1797, 1989. This is a modern translation.
"William Wilberforce." In Chambers Dictionary of World History, edited by Bruce P Lennan and Trevor Anderson, 887. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2000.
Further notes from Peter Moore:
You might also consider reading it in a modern English version (see the Edmund's edition above, or any other modern translation.)