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 Issues | Church History | William Wilberforce


William Wilberforce by Michael Hennell
Social and Educational Reform

Wilberforce and his colleagues did a great deal for the poor. Wilberforce was not prepared to regard the Slave Trade as his only life-work: the assertion that he was indifferent to the sufferings of the workers in the new factories is a myth. He was one of the three founders of the “Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor”. This society attempted to check the worst evils of the Industrial Revolution and to care for some of its casualties. The reports of this society include an account of the treatment and schooling of the children at Dale's factories at New Lanark, suggesting that other employers might follow his example. There are also descriptions of the Duke of Bridgewater's coal mines, Rumford's schemes for heating and feeding, of schemes for providing the unemployed with small-holdings, and accounts of numerous soup kitchens and poor societies started to relieve want, and hospitals to cure disease.

When Sir Robert Peel, senior, was collecting evidence for the Factory Bill which he introduced in 1802 to protect children in the textile industries, he called at the society's offices to increase his information and was so impressed by its work that he gave the society £1,000. The chief credit goes to Sir Thomas Bernard, who had the original idea of this society, but Wilberforce was associated with him in the work. When Peel spoke in the House Wilberforce asked that the benefits of his Bill might be extended to other industries. In 1812 he was the prime mover in the promoting of “An Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor”, and in 1826 during unrest and strikes Wilberforce directed a movement of private charity in Yorkshire to relieve the suffering of the people and to seal the reconciliation of classes. The fact that two of the earliest workers for factory reform, Oastler and Wood, had both been agents in the anti-slavery movement is not generally realized : nor is it known that a third, Thomas Sadleir, had been Wilberforce's political agent in Yorkshire and a close personal friend. The French historian Halévy has written: “The historian of the movement which produced the Factory Acts must not forget the many tributaries that swelled the main stream. But the source of the river was the piety and Christian sentiment of the ‘Evangelicals’.”

In other causes he was equally active. Every time that Rornillv brought forward a motion to remove the death for some trifling offence Wilberforce was on his feet thundering against “our murderous laws.” He attempted unsuccessfully to obtain the necessary support for Bentham's scheme for a model prison. He visited Newgate with Elizabeth Fry and so alarmed was he by what he saw that he wrote: “Were I young I should certainly give notice of the business if no one else did.” His age, however, did not prevent him from speaking against the evils of transportation the following year. He also tried in vain to win freedom for the “climbing boys” who hand-swept the chimneys of the stately homes of England. The House of Lords defeated the Bill, so he and his friends formed four societies to protect the young sweeps.

Wilberforce was also an ardent educationist. He was working on an extensive scheme for the education of the poor when his attention was drawn to the pupil-teacher methods of Dr. Lancaster, a Quaker. After some misgivings he became a vice-president of the British and Foreign School Society, which as an undenominational body did much to further elementary education in this country. He also supported the National Society, founded about the same time. Before these societies came into being he and his friends had been seeking to extend the Sunday School Movement throughout the country. Sunday Schools not only provided religious instruction but taught reading, writing and arithmetic. In the district round Bath Wilberforce found the people so brutal, ferocious and ignorant that he persuaded his friend, Hannah More, to start schools and Sunday schools there. Eventually a completely new social and religious life was to be found in those parts. The money for the schools came from the pockets of Thornton and Wilberforce.

Wilberforce was not only interested in teaching the people to read, he was also concerned with what they read. The newly literate were especially fascinated by the tracts and simple moral tales which Hannah More and Legh Richmond produced. These were written in homely English and distributed
by hawkers at nominal cost. The tracts were read by the court circles and the upper classes. For this class of society Wilberforce himself wrote what started as a tract, but grew to a book of more than 100,000 words. He called it by a typically eighteenth-century title: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religiom System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country contrasted with Real Christianity. For forty years or more it was a best seller; five editions were sold in six months, and of the sixth edition there were fifteen impressions ; it was translated into five languages. Burke thanked Wilberforce for it on his deathbed. Arthur Young, the agriculturalist, Thomas Chalmers, the Scottish Church leader, and Legh Richmond all claimed to have been influenced by it. The book is addressed to nominal Christians whose basic assumptions as to what the Christian faith is, and implies, the author challenges, and whose failure to instruct their young he deplores. Nominal Christianity is true neither to the Bible nor to the Prayer

In the second and longer part he contrasts the unhappy social and ethical results of this nominal Christianity with the effects of real Christianity. The changes brought about by the French Revolution on the continent and the Industrial Revolution in England, are constantly in his mind. He comments on the increase of prosperity, the growth of new cities, the splendour and luxury of the age, and the decline of religion, manners and morals ; he reminds the rich of their duties to the poor, and asserts that the only remedy for the selfishness which wealth encourages lies in Christianity.

The results of the propaganda of Wilberforce and his friends are almost incalculable. In Parliament these men were successful in making duelling in the Services illegal. They failed by parliamentary action to prohibit cock-fighting and bull and bear-baiting, but their tracts and articles brought about such a change in public opinion that the sports died out for want of support. Further, bookshops selling unclean literature had to close down for want of customers. In fact in all classes of society it became apparent that Wilberforce's endeavours to reform his country's manners had been successful, and the moral earnestness which made possible the great achievements of nineteenth-century England was everywhere apparent.

Wilberforce had lived in the spirit of the vision which Newton had seen for him: his life had been one of almost unequalled achievement. Chiefly to him the slave owed his freedom, the social reformer new methods of campaigning, the colonial administrator his ideal of trusteeship, and the man in public life his ideal of integrity. The tradition of Wilberforce was maintained during the nineteenth century, in its concern for the poor and under-privileged, by Lord Shaftesbury, and in its concern for the African and Indian by the missionaries who took to them the news of the Christ Wilberforce loved. His love for Christ made him love his fellow-men, and in their gratitude was some reward. When he died in 1833 the whole coloured population of the West Indies went into mourning for him and the tom-toms of Africa beat out the message, “Massa King Wilbee – Him - Dead.”


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William Wilberforce

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