• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.