Thursday, June 28, 2012

Wilberforce, slavery, and social activism

RiShawn Biddle has a great essay on William Wilberforce, Christianity, and slavery, and the lessons we can learn from Wilberforce and his allies in addressing modern issues like education reform.


During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church constantly opposed slavery, particularly to the Muslim world, while in 1542, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V enacted the Law of the Indies, which declared that American Indians and other Natives in the New World were not allowed to be enslaved. But most did little to actively oppose it and push for the end of the peculiarly evil institution. This all began to change by the late 18th-century when a group of men and women began to recognize the moral and social damage the slave trade was wrecking. These evangelicals, influenced by the preaching of clerics such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley, who emphasized the importance of personal awakening and experience in becoming Christians (as well as the importance of actively saving souls through religious conversion), believed that all people were saved by God’s grace and Jesus Christ’s personal sacrifice on the cross. From where they sat, slavery was not only unacceptable, but an evil and affront to the Creator that could no longer be allowed to continue. So they could no longer stand idly by as some four million Africans died on slave ships and even more were subjected to the brutality of life in slavery...
For school reformers, there is plenty to be learned from Wilberforce’s example. And gleaning those lessons is critical to ensuring that systemic reform of American public education. It starts by embracing the moral force that drives our efforts, understanding that we are charged both by our Creator and by our obligation to our fellow man to overhaul all the systems that feed into the schools at the center of the lives of our children so that all of our kids can know their own names
Contrary to the arguments of some reformers, notably American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess, we must be the conscience of men and women who should know better (and, for the sake of their own enlightened self-interest, make sure that both other people’s children and their own can get a high-quality education), and that means scolding those who do aid and abet practices that harm the futures of our children. At the same time, we must offer solutions that lead more people to live up to their moral obligations, and constantly articulate why transforming how we provide teaching and curricula to our children must change for the better. 
As reformers, we must also be advocates in all corners. This means grassroots work in communities, helping the 51 million single parents, grandparents, and immigrant families in their quests to provide their children with schools fit for their futures. It also means working in policymaking circles, from lobbying congressional and statehouse leaders to working with reform-minded governors to achieve our goals. And it involves strong political advocacy, supporting those candidates who will be reliable supporters of reform and working to vote out those politicians who don’t deserve another term.
Finally, we must always remember that systemic reform involves changing minds. This means working hard to convert those who are on the fence or oppose our views to our side. This means using every tool in our arsenal, including the power of media. As Choice Media TV founder Bob Bowdon has noted, the school reform movement has far too many Thomas Jeffersons creating ideas, and not enough Thomas Paines espousing them strongly in public. We need more Thomas Paines, Ida B. Welles, William Lloyd Garrisons, and Davis Guggenheims writing and filming on our behalf. Reformers must learn to embrace those outsiders who can serve as ambassadors for our cause and not alienate them by decrying them as being “simplistic” in their message. 
Being a school reformer means being an evangelical for our children. And all of us in the movement should embrace this role the way William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists did two centuries ago.

Wilberforce and his Christian allies are the paradigm for enlightened and effective social activism. In the 1780's, it was thought madness to propose that slavery and the slave trade be abolished. By 1810, the British Navy was intercepting slave ships and freeing slaves.  Wilberforce's accomplishment is astonishing. He changed the rules of the debate. Before his work, slavery was an institution as old as mankind, with enormously powerful interests defending it. After his work, slavery could nowhere be defended by rational well-intentioned people.

He changed minds, but more importantly he changed hearts. It was only then that laws changed.

We need to use his approach in defending innocent life, in assuring quality education for all children, in protecting marriage and family, and in protecting religious freedom and freedom of speech from their not-so-cultured despisers.

Something to contemplate during the Fortnight for Freedom.

NB: For readers who would like a beautiful intro into Wilberforce's life and work, the movie Amazing Grace is... amazing. Highly recommended.


  1. Michael,

    Nice try. You tell a simple story, which is easy to understand.

    But which is also incomplete and as a result largely incorrect.

    A large part of the reason why Native Americans weren't enslaved after the invasion of the Americas by Spanish and Portugese Catholic fortune hunters after the late 15th century was because there weren't enough of them.

    With the introduction of Old World diseases, such as smallpox, malaria, measles, whooping cough, native populations were more than decimated. Death rates of around 95% occurred. European contact wasn't even necessary. The thriving Mississippi civilization was wiped out by smallpox even before Europeans arrived in the area, finding an unoccupied land.

    Of course, Wilberforce deserves credit for the abolition of the slave trade. But there were many Christians who profitted from slavery over the centuries. Even after the slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1833, it continued to be legal in India till 1843.

    And slavery wasn't abolished immediately. It was replaced by 'apprenticeships' (slavery by another name), which weren't discharged for 6-12 years. And often slavery was replaced by indentured servitude, slavery by yet another name.

    The 1833 slavery abolition act provided for compensation to be paid to the slave owners, including an English bishop! (I was bemused that there's been some recent attacks on Charles Darwin solely because one of his ancestors was a slave holder).

    I suppose that you're now going to ask for atheists who were anti-slavery? How about the French revolutionaries of 1789, who abolished slavery. Napoleon reestablished slavery 10 years later. The Haiti revolt of 1804 was partly because of slavery.

    I shudder to think what you regard as 'quality education'. Intelligent Design in science classes perhaps?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. "How about the French revolutionaries of 1789, who abolished slavery"?

      Really? are you sure? in 1789? or in 1794? in France or in the colonies?

    3. Domics,

      Again, you're right. They did abolish slavery in France and its colonies in 1794, but they were the French revolutionaries of 1789. They declared slavery to be against the Rights of Man, which was very advanced at the time.

      Wilberforce was just campaigning against the incredible cruelty of the slave trade, the descriptions of the conditions on the slave ships being horrendous.

      Napoleon reinstituted slavery in 1802.

      I put that bit about the French revolution to preclude Michael's habit of asking for atheists who were anti-slavery, to compensate for the many pro-slavery Christians, who quoted Scripture to justify slavery.

    4. "I put that bit about the French revolution to preclude Michael's habit of asking for atheists who were anti-slavery, to compensate for the many pro-slavery Christians, who quoted Scripture to justify slavery."

      WHAT? Straw man. No surprise there.
      No mention of atheists or the Terror in this post.

    5. CrusadeRex,

      I did write why I mentioned the French revolution.

      Michael has a habit of asking for atheists who have campaigned against slavery, been burnt at the stake by the Inquisition or (ludicrously) campaigned against artwork considered to be offensive to Christians.

    6. Bach,

      So this is some sort of pre emptive rant?
      The subject was Wilberforce.
      For me it seemed an attempt to detract from the works of that man and the movement he inspired and to inject some sort of debate about atheism or atheists.
      But let's face it the modern justifications for racism are not religion, they are pseudo scientific.
      Lesser races who are 'less evolved', skull measurements, comparisons with animals and so on and so forth.
      Does this mean that science is bad or somehow culpable? No. Not even if it has been more effectual than the pseudo religious nonsense.
      It means cynical people use religion, science, and politics as tools to put themselves in a position of superiority. ALL such veins of thought must be checked and monitored.
      I do not see how Atheism has ANYTHING to do with this subject.

    7. CrusadeRex,

      You still don't get the point. Michael persists in claiming that Christians such as Wilberforce were uniquely responsible for the abolition of the slave trade, and that Christianity not the campaigners should get the credit.

      It ignores the fact that there were Christians at the same time who were actively supporting slavery. Does Christianity also get the credit for slavery persisting too?

      Credit where credit is due. Wilberforce was a great man. I agree; atheism has nothing to do with whether the slave trade was abolished. Neither does Christianity. People make their decisions for reasons other than whether they believe in God and whether they're going to get rewarded in heaven.

      But Michael usually asks at this point for the atheists who campaigned against slavery (I admit; there weren't many because there weren't many atheists at the time).

      If scientists in the past claimed that there is racial inferiority, then it just confirms that scientists are humans and prone to error and bias as a result of unconscious or even conscious prejudice.

      Science is reliable in eventually arriving at the truth, unlike religion, because its claims and theories are always open to be disproved.

      Is there any current scientific support for fascism? Definitely not. Steven Pinker's book 'the Blank Slate' gives a reasonable overview. For the variation between individuals, about 50% is nature (presumably genetic) and 50% nurture (presumably environmental).

      Without giving everyone the ideal environment, it's impossible to state whether someone growing up in an impoverished community and fails to achieve 'success' (usually defined in our bizarre modern world as making a lot of money and acquiring a lot of ephemeral physical things) is 'inferior' genetically.

      Atheism has nothing to do with this subject because Christianity has nothing to do with it either.

    8. Another senior moment and a victim of the accursed spell check (perhaps). Should have read that there's no current scientific support for rascism (not fascism yep that's the case, it tried to change rascism again ...)

    9. "put that bit about the French revolution to preclude Michael's habit of asking for atheists who were anti-slavery, to compensate for the many pro-slavery Christians, who quoted Scripture to justify slavery."

      One point:
      "L'abolition de l'esclavage a été proclamée une première fois en France pendant la Révolution, à l'initiative de l'abbé Henri Grégoire le 4 février 1794."

      Abbé? yes, a Catholic priest!

  2. Do you mean Darwin or Dawkins?

    1. Domics,

      Yes, you're right. One of my senior moments (I'm the same age as Michael). Memory is of course fallible. Anyone who claims that memory is infallible is deluded. All memories are partially confabulated (made up) to tell an understandable story.


      But then again, I don't recognize authority. There's only good ideas, not good authorities. I don't feel the need to defend all of Darwin's or Dawkins' ideas or to attack the good that Wilberforce or Pope Pius XII did.

  3. An excellent post, once again Mike.
    The approach of Wilberforce and his allies across the Empire are just as important for us to understand as the results of their efforts. Here is a Super Power getting rich of an immoral trade somehow convinced to think with their hearts as opposed to their wallets.
    There was no need for heads on poles, no destruction of culture or history, no overturn of government, no anarchy or loss of Empire - just an appeal to the real and objective morals present. A brilliant and moral struggle that improved the lives of millions world wide for generations to come.

    The educational connections are also very well stated.
    I too would recommend 'Amazing Grace'. A good period piece, well acted, and full of good intent...and it stars Ioan Gruffudd, everyone'd favourite Hornblower!