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 Issues | Church History | William Wilberforce


Great Churchmen  (No 17)

William Wilberforce

by Michael Hennell

Published by Church Book Room Press


In the year 1787 William Wilberforce wrote in his Journal: “God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” In both tasks he was successful; in both, his personal endeavours were essential to ultimate success. The society in which Wilberforce grew up, despite its elegance and wit, was corrupt from top to bottom; seldom have standards been lower in this country. Of a group in Parliament itself Sir Robert Walpole once said : " All these men have their price." At elections seats often went to the highest bidder, and to contest an election meant spending a fortune in many cases. On his first election at Hull, Wilberforce himself spent over £8,000. In some parts of the country there was only a handful of electors and nearly half the seats were controlled by landed patrons. Integrity, which was lacking in Parliament, was lacking in almost every other walk of life, and the professions were crowded with quacks of almost every description. Fortunes were lost and won at the gaming tables; quarrels were settled by duelling; immorality and drunkenness were rife among all classes. The rich man drank his four bottles at a sitting and the poor man might kill himself with gin (although the tax on spirits tended to discourage excess in the latter half of the century). The people's amusements were coarse and cruel, consisting of bull- and bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and regular attendance at public executions. At these public demonstrations the air was thick with bawdy songs sung either by professional street singers or by children from the slums. There was no specific criminal class; for many of the poor it was as customary to pick a pocket as to drink a drink. Punishments in no way fitted the crime, and by the end of the century there were more than two hundred offences punishable by death, including stealing five shillings from a shop or a sheep from a farm. The prisons and lunatic asylums were nearly all in private hands and were run for profit under disgusting conditions.

New methods of farming and the extension of the enclosure system led to the establishment of large estates and accelerated the movement of numbers of labourers from the villages to the new industrial centres, where the new machinery was providing employment for thousands; many of these were women and children and some of them were working as much as fifteen hours a day. There were no social services and no provision for education by the State. What education there was for the poor was on a small scale and was provided by the Charity Schools run by the S.P.C.K. and by Nonconformists, and by dames' schools where old women taught children to read for threepence a week. The majority of Englishmen could not read at all.

The Church did little to remedy this state of affairs. Many of the clergy conformed to the world around them, some did not reside in their parishes. These evils were not new, and many eighteenth-century parsons were conscientious in their parochial duties, but they had little effect on society as a whole and had no enthusiasm for evangelism. In fact enthusiasm " was scorned by good churchmen as being associated with the lawless activities of Wesley and Whitefield. The revival their work brought about was responsible for a great change in the habits and customs of thousands of people, who became cleaner, more law-abiding and more reliable. This was especially true of the new industrial classes of the North and Midlands and of small towns like Truro and Huddersfield where Evangelical Anglicans like Walker and Henry Venn produced the same results on a small scale. But the effect of Revival on the more prosperous classes was not considerable, and it was to them that Wilberforce especially addressed himself, both in his book, the Practical View and through the Proclamation Society which was in fact a revival of the Society for the Reformation of Manners.

As for the Slave Trade, most men in the eighteenth century took it for granted, considering it a necessity for England's welfare and for the prosperity of its ports and people. Its origin lies in the sixteenth century. Since the discovery of America, white colonists had found a country rich in raw materials, especially tobacco and sugar; but labour for the plantations was lacking. Red Indians were not equal to the work and white men were unwilling. In Africa, however, things were different. Owing to the superiority of European arms, natives could be captured and deported across the Atlantic; or better still, a chief could be bribed by a promise of gunpowder or brandy to make war on his neighbour and to hand over his prisoners to the slave dealers. With their capture the slaves' misery had only begun, for the bigger the load the larger the owner's profit, so as many Africans as possible were huddled together in the lower parts of the ship where they were left chained and without sanitation. Women and children were not fettered but were exposed to the lust and cruelty of the captain and the crew. Little wonder that a quarter of the cargo died on the voyage known as the Middle Passage. Of these horrors most Englishmen were ignorant, although black slaves in English streets were becoming a familiar sight to the eighteenth century citizen; and the wealthy West Indian planter was becoming as well-known and as powerful as his rival from East India. Liverpool was at the heart of the Slave Trade, controlling six-sevenths of it at the time of its abolition in 1833.


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William Wilberforce

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