Rich Lowry

How to overcome all this? The abolitionists called on the British people to live up to their professed faith. If they believed that all men were created in the image of God, how could they sanction treating some of them as cattel? They pushed the public's nose down into the facts of what happened on the slave ships, countering the propaganda about slaves enjoying their journey. They mobilized public opinion in an unprecedented way, producing petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people.

And they were persistent. In 1796, a vote to abolish the trade lost by an agonizing four votes. It wasn't for another decade that the abolitionists won, in what one historian called "among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations."

Metaxas credits Wilberforce and his associates (the so-called Clapham Circle) with helping give us the notion of the "social conscience" as we know it. Wilberforce was involved in no less than 69 groups devoted to social reform, on issues from animal cruelty to child labor.

Such reformers can be humorless busybodies. ("Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?" Wilberforce asked his earnest cousin Henry Thornton after the victory against the slave trade. Thornton, missing the lighthearted nature of the comment, replied, "The lottery, I think.") They also can be farsighted advocates for change that, once it occurs, we all accept as inevitable and right. The abolition of the slave trade was such a change, championed 200 years ago by people who, thankfully, realized the importance of faith in public life.

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
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