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The Abolitionists' Scandal
(1759-1833), 1832 (pen and ink on paper), Richmond, George (1809-96) ©Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library International

Dig all you want, but you're not going to find any dirt on him, William Wilberforce biographer Eric Metaxas told a Chicago meeting of Christian leaders in April.

No doubt most of those at the Trinity Forum gathering—from political advocacy organizations, aid and relief groups, megachurches, and other influential organizations—were already familiar with the 18th-century parliamentarian and his efforts to lead British abolitionists to victory.

The 2007 bicentennial of the Slave Trade Act (which barred slave trading in the British Empire) was the high point in a decade of increased attention to Wilberforce, marked by the release of the film Amazing Grace and a library of new biographies. In one, Rick Warren called Wilberforce "one of the greatest influences on my life." John Piper's volume emphasized the abolitionist's passion for theology. Focus on the Family produced a lengthy radio drama. Charles Colson, perhaps Wilberforce's greatest booster, referenced him in at least 73 recent BreakPoint radio commentaries.

Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay says that of the evangelicals in cultural leadership he has studied, most notably for his 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power, 39 percent named Wilberforce, C. S. Lewis, or both men as their personal hero or icon. (While he doesn't have figures for Wilberforce alone, Lindsay says, a contest between Lewis and Wilberforce would be "neck and neck.")

Wilberforce's celebrity status is particularly remarkable because it's new, Lindsay says, noting that Christian media from the 1940s and '50s contain almost no references to his life and work.

Now, most evangelicals have at least heard the 1787 declaration ...

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The Abolitionists' Scandal
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October 2010

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