Can God & Politics Mix?
Can God and politics mix? Is blending them a recipe for suppressing freedoms, grabbing votes, or promoting the public good?
God-talk has become popular among US politicians. Leaders contemplating faith-in-action would do well to look back two centuries to William Wilberforce, the famous British parliamentarian who led a grueling but bipartisan twenty-year struggle to outlaw the trading of slaves.
Abraham Lincoln acknowledged Wilberforce’s significant role in abolition. Nelson Mandela, addressing the British Parliament in 1996, declared, “We have returned to the land of William Wilberforce who dared … to demand that the slaves in our country should be freed.”
Slavery considered ‘necessary’
As biographer Garth Lean notes, eighteenth-century Britain led the world in slave trading. A pillar of colonial economy, the trade was legal, lucrative, and brutal. In one notorious episode, a ship’s captain threw 132 slaves overboard because of illness and water shortage. British law protected the ship’s owners, considering slaves property (like “horses,” opined one judge).
Many considered the trade essential to national security; it trained seamen for the Royal Navy.
Enter Wilberforce, young, silver-tongued, popular, and ambitious. A close friend of Prime Minister William Pitt, Wilberforce seemed destined for political greatness. Then, a profound change led him on a path that some say cost him the prime ministership, but helped rescue an oppressed people and a nation’s character.
While traveling with Cambridge professor Isaac Milner, a skeptical Wilberforce spent long hours discussing biblical faith. His doubts receded as Milner answered his objections. Initial intellectual assent to Christian faith morphed into deeper conviction and a personal relationship with God. He consulted John Newton slave-trader-turned-pastor and writer of the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton told Wilberforce that God had raised him up “for the good of the nation.”
Standing up, standing alone
Wilberforce considered “the suppression of the slave trade” part of his God-given destiny. Opposition was fierce. Financial stakeholders howled. Some claimed slavery benefited slaves since it removed them from barbarous Africa. The Royal Family opposed abolition. Even Admiral Lord Nelson, Britain’s great hero, denounced “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.”
Wilberforce and the Abolitionists repeatedly introduced legislation. Apathy, hostility and parliamentary chicanery dragged out the battle. Twice West Indian sea captains threatened Wilberforce’s life. His health faltered.
Buoyed by friends and faith, Wilberforce persisted. He believed God viewed all humans as equal, citing Acts 17:26, “[God] has made from one blood every nation of men.” Methodism founder John Wesley encouraged perseverance, writing, “If God is with you, who can be against you? … Be not weary in well-doing. Go on … till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away ….”
Finally, in 1807, twenty years after beginning, Wilberforce prevailed. Parliament erupted in cheering as the slave-trade-abolition law passed.
Outlawing the slave trade proved the impetus for a host of social improvements, including prison reforms, child labor laws, and abolition of slavery itself in 1833, of which Wilberforce learned on his deathbed.
William Wilberforce was not perfect. He had fears, flaws and foibles like anyone. You likely would not agree with all his political views. But he did possess dedication to principle and to God, close friends of many stripes, a penchant for bipartisan cooperation for the greater good, and steadfast commitment to right terrible injustice.
History generally has treated him kindly. How will history gauge today’s leaders?