William Wilberforce as Evangelical Leftist?

Folks on the Religious Right continue to sputter in outrage as evangelicals get involved in HIV/AIDS work in Africa (and at home), as evangelical leaders warn against global climate change as a moral issue, and recently as evangelicals have spoken out against the use of torture.

Whatever happened to proper evangelical social concerns: abortion, promiscuity, euthanasia, homosexuality? You know: beginning of life, end of life, and sex in between?

Well, those concerns haven’t disappeared, of course. And they remain important for evangelicals, as they do for many other Christians and, indeed, for many other people of various outlooks. It’s just that they are not the only concerns, and not even the ones currently getting the most attention.

But is this a betrayal of evangelical priorities? Not according to the career of every evangelical’s favourite political hero, William Wilberforce–whose film biography is currently in theatres as “Amazing Grace.”

I’m no expert on the fascinating history of abolitionism. But I think I know a few facts that make Wilberforce interesting in this particular context.

For one, he spent decades working away at this issue. How many evangelicals–or any of the rest of us–recognize that the long haul is the only way to get things done politically? Yes, things do eventually come to exciting crises, but the way those crises “break” has a lot to do with the processes that precede them that determine both the shape and outcome of those crises.

For another, Wilberforce recognized that certain kinds and sizes of problems do require government intervention, and in a big way. Indeed, the only way abolition got through Parliament was with the agreement for the state to pay massive reparations to those whose businesses would otherwise be crippled by the loss of slave labour.

(But perhaps in the age of “Bush-ism” even conservatives now believe that big government is not a problem, but a solution….)

Finally, Wilberforce recognized that these other people, these strangers, most of whom lived far away, were his responsibility and the responsibility of all his fellow Britons. Were there issues at the beginning of life in those days–say, infanticide by poor parents, child neglect and abuse, abortion, and so on? Were there issues at the end of life in those days–such as the wretched conditions of the elderly poor who were basically sentenced to death in workhouses? Were there issues of sexual morality to discuss, whether prostitution, venereal disease, and hypocrisy among even professing Christian leaders? Well, yes.

Still, this hero of evangelical social action devoted himself to this cause, to this rescue of people coloured differently than himself, in distant lands, whose emancipation would indeed cause great disruption to what we might call “the English Way of Life.”

He did not, that is, just focus on the family–at least, not just on white families like his own.

0 Responses to “William Wilberforce as Evangelical Leftist?”

  1. Justice at Bene Diction Blogs On

    […] Dr. John Stackhouse focuses on the family with his post on William Wilberforce;  ’every evangelical’s favourite political hero,’ as Amazing Grace opens in theatres across Canada. Folks on the Religious Right continue to sputter in outrage as evangelicals get involved in HIV/AIDS work in Africa (and at home), as evangelical leaders warn against global climate change as a moral issue, and recently as evangelicals have spoken out against the use of torture. […]

  2. Myron A. Penner

    Mark Steyn’s Macleans review of “Amazing Grace” ( makes a few interesing claims:

    avalailable here:

    http://www.macleans.ca/homepage/magazine/article.jsp?content=20070319_103231_103231

    – he parallels 18th century England and 21st century North America in terms of widespread acceptance of moral decline; not affirmation per se, just acceptance (slavery and pervasive child prostitution were just unpleasant parts of the social landscape).
    – he links the success of Wilberforce’s efforts with the British committment to employ the vast resources of the Royal Navy in treating slave ships as pirate vessels, entailing that slavers could be sunk on sight and their crews executed.
    – he references Wilberforce’s other great social cause: the ‘reformation of manners’ or broad ‘cultural change’

  3. April French

    Dr. Stackhouse, I’ve been thinking about this post. In response to your line of argumentation, one could argue that Dr. Dobson and others like him have “spent decades working away” at particular issues, with just as much passion as Wilberforce. I just watched Amazing Grace and was greatly inspired. I am no longer inspired by Dobson; the word that comes more quickly to mind is ‘annoyed.’ Just wondering how you would distinguish between what’s going on today in America and what was going on a couple hundred years ago in England.
    Thanks.

  4. kentuckycolonel

    John: An excellent treatist on Amazing Grace and the diligence it took for one convicted man to stay the course…even though a times he had to have others to ‘hold up his hands’ to finish the course.

    “Hand Holder Uppers” are in great need today! Churches seem to have taken the short, how many & how much in evangelism, missions, charities…if a quick return isn’t realized – whether it is in souls, contributions or ‘growth’ – then toss it out and try something new!

    And you are on target….where are the Wilburforce’s on abortion, licit sex, divorce, drunkeness, etc..etc – ad infinitum!?

    I fear – no – it’s not a ‘fear’ it’s a conviction that we – so much like the world about us – have become very concerned with being PC about our modern system of ‘church’.

    What would the master servant think? What would be His message? Probably just a basin of water and a towel, and smelly feet!
    Carl Wade

  5. Jesus Creed » Weekly Meanderings

    […] got a box of books sitting in my office to send him. (I’ll get to it Jamie. Sorry.) 9. John Stackhouse on Wilberforce as a leftist. 10. Congrats to Emily Johnson. (And RJ […]

  6. Mark Petersen

    John,

    Excellent post that makes me think, especially since I just saw Amazing Grace last night. This is one of my first times on your blog.

    In my work of giving to Christian charities, I’m coming to some conclusions and greater clarity of purpose. What motivates me to give is to see others served. Many charities and churches seem to exist to serve only their own kind, or their own members. It seems to me that our missional call is all about getting outside our comfort zone and serving those unlike us, not battening down the hatches and preserving life as it was 30 years ago.

    I’m also a former board member for Focus on the Family Canada. Your post ends with a bit of a slam to Focus. While I believe Focus Canada is an other-centred organization with a very different agenda and modus operandi vis-a-vis the US mother organization – it was becoming very hard to get out from under the celebrity brand that dominates everything – no matter how Focus Canada attempted to message things differently. I still have some good friends there, but the American-influenced entity just ended up being foreign to my own orientation and way I wanted to move forward missionally into the future.

  7. Timbo

    “Folks on the Religious Right continue to sputter in outrage as evangelicals get involved in HIV/AIDS work in Africa (and at home), as evangelical leaders warn against global climate change as a moral issue, and recently as evangelicals have spoken out against the use of torture.”

    While the politicization of global climate change and torture certainly contribute to the Religious Right’s negative reaction to these issues, where has the RR “sputtered in outrage” over HIV/AIDS relief? Are such sputterings representative of the Religious Right and Christian conservatives?

  8. Living for others « Open hands

    […] into this, today I ran across John Stackhouse’s blog posting entitled William Wilberforce as Evangelical Leftist? which compares Wilberforce’s perseverance in pushing for the end of slavery to a shift […]

  9. Christine A. Jones

    You’re right about Wilberforce being a leftist evangelical of course, as were most of the many reformers in England of that day. I’ve been reading about the Earl of Shaftsbury and other evangelical reformers. John Wesley himself is often credited with having averted a “French Revolution” in England. However, these men and women directed their efforts towards horrendous injustices that were under their very noses and for which Britons themselves were responsible. When Britian acted then, she affected about one third of the world, because it came under the British Empire.

    Today, so many of the horrors in the world exist under other regimes and are literally thousands of miles away. I’m thinking of Darfur, massacres on the continent of Africa, sex slavery in India, Thailand, Brunei, and much more. Not that none of these exist in America, but they certainly don’t exist to the extent and intensity of those in England in Wilberforce’s time. Trade Unions were started in England by evangelicals to combat the exploitation of the workers. But today’s supposed exploitation of the workers is minute in comparison to what was happening in England in the day of the reformers. Young children worked interminable hours in filthy and dangerous conditions in the mines and in the factories, climbing chimneys, working in brothels. Hospitals and prisons were a whole other area. Similar horrors exist in other nations today, but if America gets involved she is charged with trying to be the policeman of the world or having a hidden agenda of greed for oil.

    In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the reformers dealt with national problems that had international connections. Today we face a whole different context — that of globalism.

    It took Wilberforce twenty years to realize his goal and he had the prime minister, as his friend and had connections with the royal family and others of high renown. But basically he was a politician, as was Shaftesbury. Where are our politicians today, — men of character and integrity?

    It seems to me that the urgent need for reform in America is in politics and the media which propels the politicians. Instead of exporting anti slavery, today we export sleaze which degrades human life and is devoid of morality.

    The social issues in America have been politicised to the point where it seems that the most evangelicals can do is donate, vote and pray.

    Blog: Chrisscomments.blogspot.com

  10. Syler Thomas

    I think as long as those who lean a bit more left continue to pound the drum, folks on the right will get the hint. I have no firm data to back this up, but I already feel like this is happening more, especially amongst younger evangelicals.

    I’m looking forward with anticipation to the 2008 US presidential elections: what will the religious right do with a guy like Giuliani who has been divorced twice and is pro-choice? Do you vote for him just because he’s a Republican? He’s preferable over someone like Barack Obama, who’s a self-proclaimed Christian, yet pro-choice as well?

  11. mac

    Here we go again. Treating the religious right as mental simpletons and political stooges is all the rage these days. In my time at Regent, I have also come to find that the religious right is destroying the planet, starving the poor, and a litany of other ills not the least of which is drowning puppies. Alas, once again in the spirit of Christian fellowship, I am made to feel like a second class citizen in the Kingdom.

    I found the Wilberforce movie to be truly inspirational. To think that Christianity must fit any political mold is outrageous. To those who think 45,000,000 dead children from abortion is the US and Canada is heinous and must be stopped, keep banging the drum. To those who want HIV/AIDS curtailed and cured, keep banging the drum. To everybody, get involved; the government is not the Church and should never be left to do the work of the Kingdom.

  12. John Stackhouse

    Oh, now, Brother mac, I’m not treating the religious right in the way you suggest. I’m treating SOME of them critically, yes, but I’m hardly lumping them all together into one nasty pile of stupidity and sin.

    For one thing, I’m pretty conservative myself when it comes to, say, abortion, abstinence education, and euthanasia. (For those of you keeping score: against, for, and against.)

    For another thing, lots of people combine such views, as I do, with views typically associated with the so-called left: resistance to the death penalty, support of greater gun control, support for multiprong anti-HIV/AIDS strategies (including distribution of condoms), concern for increased environmental protection, advocacy of universal health care, and the like.

    My point, then, is not to bash the Right. It is indeed to shake up the easy categories and the harmful polarizations that follow from such lazy ways of sorting things out. So I agree with your second paragraph…

    …until the last sentence:

    Yes, the government is not the Church, but it does its distinctive work under the Lordship of Jesus Christ–whether it acknowledges him or not–and the Church is to do its distinctive work as well. Both thereby contribute to the work of the Kingdom, the preservation and increase of shalom.

    And both will fail to do their jobs perfectly–which is why, busy as we are in cooperating with both institutions to help them do their work well, we long for the return of the only One who can sort this out once for all.

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