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What Would Wilberforce Do?

The 19th-century abolitionists have much to teach us about politics today.
2007This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

American evangelicals continue to fret over their political engagement—with good reason. Our core commitments focus on church, family, and evangelization, while the political process often produces polarization and nastiness that can drown out the fundamental message of salvation in Jesus.

Yet we have no doubt that moral crises call not only for conversions, but also for legal restraints to evil. So we engage politically, not primarily because we want to form a voting bloc, but because we know that if we ignore politics, we imperil the wellbeing of millions of people.

The February bicentennial of the British parliament's vote to abolish the slave trade has drawn attention to evangelical pioneers in political engagement. The new film Amazing Grace is introducing millions of moviegoers to the story of William Wilberforce and the remarkable campaign to ban the slave trade. In churches across the land, Christians have been commemorating this great activist and others.

A Lesson from Newton

Wilberforce should not just be honored, but also his example heeded. What lessons do he and his circle have for us?

First, we should not feel foolish for our ambivalence about politics. William Wilberforce and the playwright and poet Hannah More were both prominent public figures when they experienced crisis conversions. After their conversions, both considered retiring from public life in order to engage fully in the spiritual life. Even though Great Britain thought of itself as a Christian nation, political and cultural elites had little tolerance for the kind of religion that called for total immersion in the life of faith, with a deep personal piety, a morally reformed life, and an eagerness to share the faith with the great unwashed, and ...

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