How does a society vanquish a social ill that is deeply ingrained, that benefits the economy and that directly harms only the utterly powerless?
That is the question addressed by the new movie "Amazing Grace," and the companion book of the same name by author Eric Metaxas. They tell the story of William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian whose decades-long fight against the slave trade finally resulted in its abolition in 1807. This month is the bicentennial of what was, to use contemporary argot, one of history's most successful "faith-based initiatives."
Wilberforce was a committed Christian, whose faith informed his opposition to slavery and steeled him against the reverses that inevitably attended his against-the-odds battle. His model is a useful corrective in the current debate concerning the proper role of faith in American public life. Defenders of faith's importance tend to get squeezed on one side by secularists railing against imagined offenses to liberty and the Constitution and on the other by the buffoonish antics of Christian leaders like Pat Robertson.
Needless to say, gross abuses have been committed in the name of Christianity. But it has also been an irreplaceable wellspring of social reform. Sometimes only people with an otherworldly conception of justice have the imagination and courage to challenge an unjust status quo. In the case of the slave trade, those challengers initially were widely mocked Quakers and evangelicals like Wilberforce, whose fervor offended an establishment used to an undemanding Christianity. "Things are coming to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade private life," commented one disapproving lord.
Abolitionists confronted a forbidding landscape, as Metaxas makes clear in his spirited, moving account of Wilberforce's life: "Slavery was as accepted as birth and marriage and death, was so woven into the tapestry of human history that you could barely see its threads, much less pull them out. Everywhere on the globe, for 5,000 years, the idea of human civilization without slavery was unimaginable."
Abolition was, strictly speaking, impractical. According to Adam Hochschild's history of abolition, "Bury the Chains," Britain was a country "where profits from West Indian plantations gave a large boost to the economy, where customs duties on slave-grown sugar were an important source of government revenue, and where ... the trade itself had increased to almost unparalleled levels, bringing prosperity to key ports, including London itself."
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.