Picture credit: Culture Club/Getty Images

William Wilberforce and England’s forgotten saints

The Clapham Saints and their efforts to reform British manners have been unjustly and unwisely forgotten

Artillery Row

On 25 March 1807, Parliament passed an act to abolish the British slave trade. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade had been formed twenty years before, and this was the culmination of their combined efforts. It was a momentous occasion. 

Centre stage stood William Wilberforce, the MP who dedicated the best part of his adult life to the cause. He made his first speech in favour of abolition on 12 May 1789, right before turning thirty, and died but a week after the practice of slavery itself was abolished throughout the British Empire, on 29 July 1833. It is for this that Wilberforce is now best remembered.

And yet, abolition was only one of the two goals to which Wilberforce committed himself. He wrote in his diary in 1787, the same year the abolition committee first came into being, that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners”. By “manners”, he didn’t mean politeness, as we often do now, but rather one’s behaviour as informed by religious principles. While the suffering of slaves in the British colonies concerned him greatly, he saw it as symptomatic of a malady that began at home: English society — the upper classes in primis — remained Christian in name, but not in practice. 

Ten years later, in 1797, Wilberforce went on to publish what he would later term his “manifesto”, the rather clunkily titled A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. His friends — Wilberforce biographer Stephen Tomkins explains — “warned against it” (William Wilberforce: A Biography, 2007), and the printer only risked 500 copies in the initial run. Against all odds, the book sold out in five days. In the latter part of the 18th century, religious “enthusiasts” in England had been viewed with suspicion. But here was, Tomkins tells us, “a condemnation of the religious status quo from a prominent member of the establishment … offering a calm, compelling case for the evangelical faith popularly associated with firebrands and fanatics”. This kind of composed religious fervour found an audience. A Practical View  went on to sell a further 7500 copies in the first six months. It was the book Edmund Burke spent his last two days on earth reading. 

Convinced that English society desperately needed to rediscover true Christian faith, Wilberforce joined a group of social reformers now known as the “Clapham Sect”, or “Clapham Saints”.  Some of its members, now all but forgotten, were extremely influential in their day. Authors Hannah More and Thomas Gisborne were both mentioned by Jane Austen, and both significantly outsold Austen’s novels in her lifetime, despite her popularity now vastly outweighing theirs. Wilberforce’s friend and cousin Henry Thornton was a well-known economist and MP, who also happens to be the grandfather of 20th-century novelist E. M. Forster. 

They championed reform on English soil as well as abroad

While the abolition of slavery was at the forefront of their political campaigning, England’s forgotten saints didn’t suffer from what, in Bleak House, Charles Dickens brilliantly described as “telescopic philanthropy”. They championed reform on English soil as well as abroad. With Wilberforce’s help, Hannah More devoted her life to opening and running Sunday schools for poor children. The Sunday School spread like wildfire: according to Jane Austen scholar Brenda Cox, by 1824 a free Anglican education was being offered to roughly 400,000 children. More and Wilberforce were also supporters of prison reform, being sympathetic towards philanthropist Elizabeth Fry’s efforts to mend the injustices of England’s penal system. Remember that this was a time when it was possible to hang a child as young as seven for the crime of poaching. Not satisfied with protecting the dignity of human beings, Wilberforce would even become one of the founding members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the RSPCA) in 1824. The list goes on. 

While it is natural that the abolitionist cause should have overshadowed the Clapham Sect’s other achievements, it’s also a great shame. More than that, we do not truly understand Wilberforce and the other Saints if we forget that they thought justice possible only through God’s grace. Their desire to liberate fellow men from slavery makes no sense outside of their belief that English society needed to be re-educated into properly understanding their own national faith. 

While many of us may find the Saints’ ardent Evangelical morality distasteful, it is that very shameless moralism that is the backbone of their legacy. Something we now take for granted as intuitive, such as the imperative to improve the lives of the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless, is only obvious to us because people like the Clapham Saints recognised it as our duty. As historian Tom Holland has been arguing for years, the concept of human equality has not been universally accepted across history. It is distinctly Christian, and it would be foolish to assume that it can survive the demise of the Christian faith.

Wilberforce’s second goal, the reformation of manners, remains to be completed

The suppression of the slave trade was fortunately achieved long ago, but arguably Wilberforce’s second goal, the reformation of manners, remains to be completed. We can, of course, politely ignore Wilberforce’s entreaty that we reform ourselves by embracing Christianity. But instead of dismissing it as an embarrassing footnote in an otherwise laudable legacy, what if we were to take his proposal seriously? After all, Wilberforce and the Clapham Saints could only achieve the abolition of slavery, as well as countless other goods, because they were motivated by the salvation of souls, and confident that God’s grace constantly aided them. And if that is the case, where does that leave us? In the post-Christian England of our day, can we really reform our society without the belief in something greater than ourselves?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover