Learning from William Wilberforce…

William Wilberforce

How to live in our increasingly secular culture?  That is the question that many, if not most, Christians are asking these days.  But the answer(s) is not clear even for those who have focused greatest attention on various possibilities.  Journalist Rod Dreher has proposed what he calls the Benedict Option.  This has been countered by others with what has been referred to as the Wilberforce Option.  A third possibility has been dubbed the Robert George option, named for the prominent Catholic legal scholar and Princeton professor.


It is not clear that author, speaker, and culture commentator Eric Metaxas would subscribe to what is being called the Wilberforce Option, even though he has written a book on the life and work of the “great emancipator.”


Long before proposing “options” became a preoccupation for Evangelicals and other conservative Christians, Metaxas wrote an insightful article on how Wilberforce and his group of friends were able to bring remarkable changes to their extremely secular culture—a culture, Metaxas argues, that had been “completely swamped by secularism.”


Two hundred years ago, when the great reformer and abolitionist William Wilberforce was alive, the situation was the same. In fact, it was worse. In our own country today, secularism is still generally confined to the cultural elites, who are few in number and mostly live in a few metropolitan areas. But the overwhelming percentage of Americans across the country – 84 percent by a recent Gallup poll – self-identify as Christians, with about half of them “serious” about their faith. So most of us still remember where the Golden Rule came from. Though the tide is rising, we have not yet been completely swamped by secularism.


But in Wilberforce’s England, they had. The secularism of the elites had over the course of the 18th century quite overrun the country, and though most people still went to church, almost no one really believed the Bible or the basic tenets of the faith. Most of the clergy didn’t believe it themselves, and from their pulpits were chirrupping mainly about Enlightenment deism and rationalism, and “preaching” a tepid status-quo moralism. And the culture, having drawn back from anything resembling a robust Christian faith, was suffering terribly. The elites set the extraordinarily low cultural standards, being as hedonistic and selfish as anything we can imagine outside Versailles; they gave nothing to the poor and did nothing to help them. As far as they were concerned, the poor deserved to be poor, and they deserved to be rich. End of discussion. The effect of this was incalculable, and throughout the whole of the 18th century extreme poverty and social chaos held sway, complete with public displays of animal cruelty, epidemic alcoholism among all classes, and every other kind of social horror. One contemporary statistic paints the grim picture: 25 percent of all single women in London were prostitutes. Their average age was sixteen.


Still, despite these longest of odds Wilberforce and his devout friends – what we today call the Clapham Circle – somehow succeeded in radically changing the cultural conversation and climate over a few decades. By Wilberforce’s death in 1833, they had managed to bring a Christian worldview into the cultural mainstream for the first time in modern history. To say that it was miraculous is merely to know the details. And they did it, as we have said, by showing their faith through works, and by moving principally in culturally elite circles. …


Following a brief overview of the Clapham Circle, Metaxas discusses the two elements that were critical to their effectiveness in “changing their world.”


Faith and Works


As we have said, the first aspect of their success has to do with their theological view that one must prove one’s faith though one’s works, that the two cannot be separated. Wilberforce and his friends lived at a time when there was no false division between faith and works, or between evangelism and social outreach. These were simply two sides of the coin that was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The great 17th century evangelist George Whitfield spent as much time establishing orphanages as preaching – and he preached 18,000 sermons. Caring for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, and helping the poor were all explicitly and exclusively Christian ideas, so atheists, agnostics, and nominal Christians were neither involved in them, nor in abolition. The idea of a social conscience simply didn’t exist in that culture, except among serious Christians, who were scorned by the wider culture as “Methodists”, because many had been converted through the “Methodist” movement of Charles and John Wesley.


Today, of course, thanks to Wilberforce and his friends, most everyone has a social conscience. The idea of “making goodness fashionable” had so succeeded that Christian morality became the standard in public life throughout the 19th century, so much so that we laugh at “Victorian values” today. But because doing good to one’s fellow man had become so popular, it eventually became unmoored from its explicitly Christian roots. Something called the “Social Gospel” came into being, where some jettisoned the theology of Jesus’ divinity and miracles, and decided that “doing good” was all the Christianity they needed. In reaction to this – tragically – many Christians decided, around 1920, to focus almost exclusively on evangelism and on theological fundamentals, calling themselves “Fundamentalists”. Since then, many Christians have inherited this strange, ironic situation, where those behind social outreach in the first place stepped back and let non-Christians take the lead. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.


Suffice it to say that Wilberforce and the people of the Clapham Circle existed before this strange and tragic split. For them, as we have said, working to alleviate suffering and to fight social injustices went hand in hand with evangelism and a high view of Scripture. They fought hard to win souls to Christ, and just as hard to fight suffering and poverty and injustice in Christ’s name. And they realized that to be successful in either of these, they needed to be deeply devoted to Christ as well as fully engaged in the culture around them. In a way we’ve not seen since, they were remarkably successful in striking the balance that is meant by the phrase “in the world, but not of it”. While they spent much time together and prayed much, they knew God had not called them only to fellowship and endless prayer meetings, but to go out and to do His work outside those meetings, in the marketplace. That was the model and the mandate of the One who had sent them out, and they took it very seriously. Who was it who said: I come not to heal those that are well, but the sick? Hint: it wasn’t Dorothy Parker.


The people of Clapham also evinced an extraordinary ecumenism. Suffering and injustice – and, oh yes, Satan – were their real enemies, not other Christians who differed with them on some minor points of theology. Most in the Clapham Circle were members of the Church of England, but among their number were “Dissenters” such as Quakers, Moravians, and Baptists. They welcomed any serious Christians to work with them on abolition of the slave trade or the other cause to which they gave themselves. To work together in a culture hostile to their faith they were obliged to renounce denominational squabbles and turf wars. Religious pride was deflated, and the Gospel flourished.


More extraordinary was their canny willingness to work with nonChristians, if possible. For example, Wilberforce made common cause with Charles Fox, another member of Parliament who was one of the most publicly immoral men of his day. But Wilberforce didn’t do this to be seen as “bipartisan” or to lessen criticisms of himself as a prude or religious fanatic, for that itself would have been prideful. He did it because he reckoned ending the slave trade more important than taking a public stand against the dizzying debaucheries of Mr. Fox.


When their fellow citizens saw that the efforts of these Christians were improving society in general – crime was reduced, for one thing – attitudes changed, giving their evangelistic efforts greater credibility too. Advocates of Enlightenment ideas such as atheism and Deism were writing angry pamphlets, but the men and women of Clapham were rolling up their sleeves and actually doing good to and for their fellow man. So perhaps this serious Christianity of Mr. Wilberforce was not so terrible after all. Wilberforce became the “moral conscience” of the nation, and he and his Clapham friends slowly but surely called the nation back to its Christian roots, reminding Britons that if they called themselves Christians, they must help the poor and suffering.


The Elite Strategy


Like Wilberforce, most of those in the Clapham Circle occupied high positions in society and were wealthy, so they had great influence and leverage, and the means to do much with that influence and leverage. Babington, Macauley, Charles Grant, and others – like Wilberforce – were members of Parliament. Hannah More was one of the chief literary figures of her day, being close friends with the famous Dr. Johnson, the actor David Garrick, and the artist Joshua Reynolds. Her friends, Lord and Lady Middleton, were also well-connected in the London world of Arts and Letters, and Lord Middleton eventually became First Lord of the Admiralty. James Stephen and Granville Sharp were lawyers; Isaac Milner was a world-class academic; Henry Venn and Thomas Gisborne were wealthy clergymen. The list goes on. They were a veritable pantheon of bigshots, all connected in their evangelical faith and their zeal to improve the culture of their nation. But without their societal stature, the causes they championed simply could not have succeeded.


But the Clapham Circle were not mere culture warriors, trying to climb over the ramparts to take control, but rather were already insiders who knew how to behave like insiders, and who would do their best to change things from within. They knew how to move in their high circles of influence; knew the unspoken language of those circles; and knew when to push and when not to push and whom to ask about this or that, and whom not to ask. They looked and behaved like everyone else, except for their deep faith, so they were simultaneously insiders and outsiders. As we have said, they may well be the most “in the world, but not of it” network of people who ever lived. As “not-of-the-world” outsiders, it was vital they spend time together, encouraging and praying with each other.


They were aware that they were also God’s ambassadors and missionaries within the elite culture of their day, much as Joseph and Daniel in theirs. The Clapham Circle did all they could to maintain their places of power and influence, so long as it advanced the Gospel, because their ultimate allegiances were not to the “world” in which they moved, but to the “not-of-the-world” Kingdom, whose King they served.


The Clapham Circle were so named because many of them lived in Clapham, then an idyllic village in the “country”, four miles from Parliament. A few of them, including Wilberforce, lived in three adjoining Georgian mansions on Clapham Common, but many others lived in London, Bath, Cambridge, and elsewhere, visiting from time to time as schedules permitted, or occasion demanded. But Clapham was their center. The historic concentration of elite evangelicals there did not occur by happenstance. It was the brainchild of Henry Thornton, a tremendously wealthy man who was Wilberforce’s closest friend. He thought coaxing Wilberforce to join him in his twelve-bedroom mansion in Clapham might attract others of serious Christian faith to the neighborhood, and perhaps something good would come of it. The house soon became a magnet for like-minded friends, who visited and stayed for days or weeks at a time, as was the custom in those days among the wealthy. Thornton soon added two wings, bringing the number of bedrooms to thirty-four, then built another home next door, and another. Before you could say “birds of a feather” Clapham had become a buzzing community of Christians in the highest branches of society, all passionately intent on using their resources of money, influence, talents, and social connections to improve things in British society, and around the world. …


But all this was in Wilberforce’s day!  Much has happened in Evangelical circles that make us no longer effective in engaging the broader secular culture—the anti-culture stance, the anti-elite attitude, and the rampant anti-intellectualism.  The last third of Metaxas’s article discussed how these stances hamper today’s Evangelicals and is linked below.  Must reading—highly recommended!!



Cultural Elites:  The Next Unreached People Group” is available online.  Eric Metaxas is the author of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, and numerous other books, including several children’s stories.



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