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Yes, a parliamentary saint

02 October 2008

James Garrard warms to William Wilberforce by William Hague

Insider knowledge: the author and MP William Hague, right; and William Wilberforce in 1794 by Karl Anton Hickel

Insider knowledge: the author and MP William Hague, right; and William Wilberforce in 1794 by Karl Anton Hickel

WILLIAM WILBERFORCE must rank as one of the most remarkable Christians ever to give his life to pub­lic service. Any opportunity to remind ourselves of the higher moti­vations that can counter-balance the low skulduggery of politics is wel­come.

Nearly all substantial reviews of this book make the same point: William Hague brilliantly conveys an insider’s feel for parliamentary machi­­nations, and of Wilberforce the man of faith in that environ­ment.

Hague is unfailingly respectful of the Evangelical faith that sustained Wilberforce. He can be savage about other parts of the Church of England.

Wilberforce was born in 1759: he en­countered Methodism from his aunt and uncle — to his mother’s utter disgust. He was elected MP for Hull at 21, after idling at Cambridge, and became a close friend of William Pitt the Younger.

William Hague is obviously im­pressed at how good Wilberforce was at maintaining good relations with those from whom he differed, with­out compromising his princi­ples.

One immediately realises (as with every public figure who garners this reputation) that this was the result of canniness and toughness, not weak­ness. A few hated him. William Cobbett the radical thought him a loathsome hypocrite who did not care about British workers.

HAGUE explains excellently Parlia­ment before the rise of modern political parties, and Wilberforce’s place as an independent member. Wilberforce became a convinced Evangelical in 1785, influenced by the writing of Doddridge and the promptings of Isaac Milner.

He took on an entirely new and rigorous approach to life, and bitterly regretted the wastrel days. He resolved to live frugally, and, though outwardly still the most amenable of men, and much desired for his com­pany, exhibited the classic conviction of his own sinfulness.

It was Pitt the Younger who, though uneasy at the conversion, encouraged Wilberforce to live out his faith in active political service. The Revd John Newton was also aware of the good that he could do, and urged him not to cut himself off from his friends. In the end, Wilberforce accepted that providence had placed him where he was. There was no time to lose.

HIS FIRST campaign was to reform manners — so horrified was he by the extent of prosti­tution and crime. Although he would dearly have liked to see many public entertainments closed down, “his idealistic objectives were always pursued by means which took into account practical and political constraints,” Hague says.

The tale of Wilberforce’s untiring annual efforts to get the slave trade banned, and his excoriation of those who supported such an appalling prac­­tice is told very well. Characters emerge who are as fascinating as those in a novel.

Egos are to the fore: Thomas Clarkson travelled thousands of miles around the country, describing the appalling conditions in which slaves were kept on board ships. He liked to think himself the leader of the cam­paign: Wilberforce’s sons cer­tainly disagreed with that.

Wilberforce faced vituperative criticism from those who had vested interests in sustaining the trade. The French Revo­lu­tion of 1789 caused such a shock to the gov­erning classes that it seriously delayed abolition.

Ever closer to like-minded friends, he was the leading light among the “Saints” in Parliament, and at the hub of the Clapham Sect, with a house which was thron­ged with friends and fellow believers.

He published A Practical View in 1797, which laid bare his opinion of the difference between “almost” and “altogether” Christians. Certainly he believed that the truth and logic of his beliefs were overwhelming. De­spite relentless effort, though, the prize of abolition seemed as distant as ever at the turn of the century.

The Bill for Abolition of the Slave Trade finally passed in March 1807, to universal acclaim. Then, immediately after this towering success, Wilber­force had to fight the most arduous campaign of his career to remain an MP. He won.

He had a huge moral influence on the House of Commons, even as a young member. When the Duke of York’s tenure as Commander in Chief of the Army hung in the balance, it was Wilberforce’s speech that forced him to resign.

THERE IS always the danger with such a towering figure that we want to claim him as one of us. But he was a man of his time, and his attacks on Hinduism, and his opposition to Catholic Emancipation until 1813 re­veal this all too obviously. Wilber­force lived just long enough to know that slavery would be outlawed.

The style of William Hague’s book is as attractive as its subject. It is beautifully written, and handles com­plex themes with clarity. Above all, it goes to the heart of the assurance that Wilberforce’s Christian convictions gave to everything he did, private and public.

William Wilberforce: The life of the great anti-slave trade campaigner by William Hague is published by Harper Collins at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-00-722886-7.

The Revd Dr James Garrard is Priest-in-Charge of St Leonard’s, Balderstone, and Warden of Readers for the diocese of Blackburn.



Which of the book’s scenes did you find most memorable? Why did it make an impact on you?

Which of the book’s scenes did you find most memorable? Why did it make an impact on you?

How did Wilberforce’s faith inform and influence the campaign against the slave trade?

Would a politician today be able to have such a profound influence in the House of Commons?

“Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action” (Pitt to Wilberforce, page 70). How does this fit with the teachings of Jesus?

If Wilberforce had lived today, how do you think he might go about campaigning against modern social ills?

“Religion is still too much a toil to me and not enough of a delight” (page 209). What was at the heart of Wilberforce’s inner struggles? What made him happy, and gave him peace?

How far do you think the softly-softly approach contributed to the final victory of the abolitionists after so many previous failures? What other factors helped their success?

Which other people, do you think, were most critical to the abolitionists’ success? What did they contribute?

Next month's book

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 November, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. It is published by Vintage at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 978-00-9947844-7).

Next month's book

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 November, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. It is published by Vintage at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 978-00-9947844-7).

Book notes

Book notes

In London during the Second World War, Maurice Bendrix, a writer, and Sarah Miles, the wife of a civil servant, embark on an affair, but Sarah breaks off the relationship without warning or explanation. Two years later, Bendrix meets Sarah’s husband, who confides his suspicions that his wife is not being faithful. Bendrix, jealousy aroused, hires a private detective to find out the truth about who or what caused Sarah to end their relation­ship. The result of the investigation is completely unexpected.

Author notes

The End of the Affair (1951) is believed to be semi-autobiographical. Greene was born in 1904, and educated at Balliol College, Oxford. He began his working life as a sub-editor on The Times, and made a career as a writer, edi­tor, and critic. In 1926, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. His novels include Stamboul Train (1932), Brighton Rock (1938), and The Power and the Glory (1940). He also wrote short stories, travel books, plays, essays, film scripts, and four books for children. He died in 1991.

Books for the next two months:

December: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

January: The Hands and Feet of Jesus by Clive Price

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