Ken Connor
Change!

It's the mantra of the political season.  But what kind of change—from what to what?

Will taxes go up or down?  Will we stay in Iraq or get out?  Will marriage be protected or abandoned?  Will we get restrained judges or judicial activists?  Will our children have fewer or more educational choices?  Will we go nuclear or stay with coal and oil?  Will our foreign policy be interventionist or isolationist?  The list of questions goes on and on, and voters should demand concrete answers.

"Change" can't be evaluated in a vacuum.  Before voters can make an assessment of the wisdom of change, they have to know what's on the table.  What are they giving up and what can they expect to get in its place?

And let's face it—it's easier to talk about change than produce it.  There are lots people who talk the talk, but only a few who have walked the walk.

Wilberforce: An Agent of Change

One of the most effective agents of change in his time was William Wilberforce.  A member of the British Parliament from 1780 to 1825, Wilberforce is a model for anyone who wants to change their culture and create a more just society.  Through bold leadership, tremendous personal sacrifice, and unflagging effort, Wilberforce changed not only his world, but ours as well. His leadership led to the elimination of the slave trade in the British Empire, a change that had enormous social and economic repercussions. His achievements spurred the abolitionist movement in our own country and the rest is history.

Sadly, Wilberforce is little known in contemporary society.  Heroes are out, pop tarts are in.  Britney and Paris are household words but Wilberforce is not. When people say "May the Force be with you," they aren't talking about William Wilberforce.  Yet, in the annals of history, Wilberforce is a shining example of a man who lived out his convictions and, in the process, transformed his culture.  But, as great as his achievements are, perhaps even more impressive is how Wilberforce did what he did.

A devout Christian, Wilberforce believed that all men have equal standing under God and that neither race nor ethnicity diminishes human worth.  He was convinced that Christ died for the slave and the free, and that slavery was not only a terrible tragedy, but also an affront to both God and man. 

How He Did What He Did

In his endeavors to cure the evil of slavery, Wilberforce employed a multi-pronged approach, attacking the problem on a variety of fronts.  His theaters of engagement included the political, legal, social, and religious arenas.  He engaged both the elites and the common folk in each arena in pursuit of his goals.  In doing so, he marshaled the consensus necessary to bring about seismic change.

The recently-released book, Creating the Better Hour: Lessons from William Wilberforce, contains a wonderful collection of essays focused on Wilberforce's life, his principles, and the implications of his work for today.  Wilberforce saw slavery as a great injustice, but he realized that it could not be cured merely by passing a law.

So Wilberforce focused on changing the moral climate of society.  He developed a strong core of friends, known as the Clapham Circle, who supported his ideas and worked with him to advance his twin causes of abolishing the slave trade and reforming morals in Britain.  They published books, poems, and pamphlets in an attempt to persuade their fellow Britons.  Wilberforce convinced King George III to issue a "Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality."  Wilberforce understood that the reformation of morals required changing the mindset of both the upper and lower classes.  He realized that he could achieve his goal of abolishing slavery only if morality became "fashionable" and if it produced authentic virtue over time.

In their essay within Creating the Better Hour, Mark Rodgers and Bill Wichterman explain Wilberforce's understanding of cultural change: "Compliance with a particular law presupposes a particular kind of civilization.  Once that civilization morphs into something new, old laws fall into disuse.  In short, cultural mores dictate which laws pass and are obeyed, and which laws are defeated or ignored.  There is a tendency on the part of many to overstate the importance of politics in shaping culture." 

According to Rodgers and Wichterman, Wilberforce thought, "Creating a just society is only partially a function of law, and much more a product of other institutions—family, religion, education, entertainment, journalism, civic associations, etc.—institutions that help us to shape what we love and what we hate."  Wilberforce held a traditional conservative view of society.  He believed government could not be the savior of a society and law could not form a culture.  He understood that only the people themselves could maintain a moral culture and a just society.  If the people became corrupt, there was no saving society.

Wilberforce also understood the importance of substantive, respectful discussion for changing minds and hearts.  According to Kevin Belmonte and Chuck Stetson in their essay in Creating the Better Hour, Wilberforce recognized "the difficulty of judging right in complicated cases, which should teach those who think differently on political subjects, mutual moderation, forbearance, and candor."  He understood that proper Christian conduct requires humility and love even when speaking harsh truths.  Wilberforce wrote, "Walk charitably.  Wherever you are, remember that your conduct and conversation may have some effect on the minds of those with whom you are."

Wilberforce did not limit his arguments to the Bible.  While he employed explicitly religious arguments, he did not hesitate to employ "secular" arguments based on statistics and pragmatism.  Wilberforce pursued his goal on all possible levels and with all possible arguments, while maintaining humility and respect for his audience.

One particularly impressive instance of Wilberforce's creative tactics is explained by Chuck Stetson: The abolitionists made a wood cameo featuring a slave kneeling in shackles and the phrase, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"  This cameo became a public symbol worn by pro-abolitionist women as jewelry and was integrated into other goods, including snuff boxes.  A single picture became the symbol for a movement.

While Wilberforce understood the limitations of laws, he worked as hard in the political realm as any other.  Wilberforce was politically savvy and willing to work with those who had vastly different agendas as long as they advanced his cause. Wilberforce understood that legal change and cultural change are co-dependent, so he worked incessantly for both.  His twenty years of work within Parliament led to the passage of the Abolition Bill on February 23, 1807.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Wilberforce saw his goals as God-given.  He began his strong quest for the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners after coming to a strong faith in God. As a fervent Christian, he based his quest to abolish slavery on biblical morality. He exhorted Parliament, "Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country."

Lessons To Be Learned

There are lessons to be learned from Wilberforce's great efforts.  He understood better than most that it is not just what you say, but how you say it that convinces others of the truth.  He held steadfastly to his Christian convictions in the face of demagogues of all types and, while he spent twenty years waging war over a controversial issue, charity always tempered his passion.

The world still contains many grave affronts to human dignity.  Men, women, and children are still enslaved around the world through forced labor, bonded labor, and sex trafficking (at least 12.3 million according to Beth Herzfeld's essay in Creating the Better Hour).  Women are forced into marriages, widows are burned to death, some people are discriminated against because of their skin color, and others are starved to death by tyrannical governments.  Here at home we give license to the powerful to exterminate the young or old or handicapped whenever we find them inconvenient.  Wilberforce's pursuit of human equality and freedom is certainly far from finished.

We would do well to remember Wilberforce's work and emulate it.  We must advocate ceaselessly for the equality and dignity of all human beings, even as we retain a spirit of charity toward our opponents and those whom we are trying to persuade.

Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.