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 Wilberforce wrote in his journal: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” (manners is a close synonym of morality). For evangelicals increasingly engaged on both social justice and sexual ethics issues, it strikes a particular chord.

It’s not that skeptics couldn’t find “dirt” on Wilberforce if they poked around. Even in his day, he found himself the target of criticism and threats. Today’s critics have their own set of complaints both personal (he was an opium addict, using the drug to combat a lifelong intestinal ailment) and political (he supported outlawing unions and government curbs on civil liberties). Modern American evangelicals don’t particularly care. They know that opium was a common treatment in his day and likely share some of his views on unions and balancing security and liberty.

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But a new history of Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect—the evangelical network active in a number of evangelistic and social efforts—is calling attention to an incident in Wilberforce’s life that is not so easily dismissed:

In Sierra Leone, Wilberforce had the chance to release captives, but instead silenced the whistleblower, his own protégé, who had tried to set them free.

‘Little Better Than a Slave-Factory’

As Stephen Tomkins explains in his book The Clapham Sect (Lion Hudson), Wilberforce and his friends had set up the Sierra Leone Company with an ambitious three-pronged goal: “the abolition of the slave trade, the civilization of Africa, and the introduction of the gospel there.” Even after the British government made Sierra Leone a crown colony, it left most decisions to Clapham Sect members. Wilberforce picked Lt. Thomas Perronet Thompson to be the colony’s first crown governor.

On the day of Thompson’s arrival, a slave trader came to him with an offer: “If you will only allow me, Sir, to bring slaves into the colony and to apprentice them, I will directly bring 300,” he said. By the time the apprenticeships were over, “I think they will have pretty well worked themselves out.”

In other words, the slave trader saw little difference between a slave and an apprentice. Soon, Thompson saw little difference as well. He watched male “apprentices” sold to Sierra Leone settlers for $20 (“the women were given away”), after which they were given nothing but provisions and were imprisoned when they tried to escape or avoid work. One white master repeatedly used a hot iron to punish his apprentice—an 8-year-old girl. When challenged, Thompson recorded, the master replied “that he paid money for the girl and therefore she is his … [and he] has a right to do as he pleases with his own.” When called a slave trader, the man was indignant. “I did not buy her,” he replied. “I redeemed her.”

“So much for this religious colony,” Thompson wrote to his fiancée. “These apprenticeships have after 16 years [of] successful struggle at last introduced actual slavery into the colony. … I am writing to Ld Ch and Mr. Wilberforce very plainly about the colony … [which] will soon be little better than a slave-factory. The effect of this representation will either set the matter to rights or be very likely to whirl me from my government, but I am acting as every man of honesty and spirit would act under the same persuasions.”

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Thompson did not wait for a reply. Instead, acting as governor, he freed all jailed runaway apprentices and declared all apprenticeships felonious forms of slavery. Masters losing their apprentices, he announced, would not be compensated.

Unfortunately, Thompson’s friends in Britain did not see things the same way. Sierra Leone Company chairman Henry Thornton—a founding member of the Clapham Sect, close friend and cousin of Wilberforce, and a Member of Parliament—replied that the buying and selling of apprentices was a problem, but said the company “could not agree that the transaction ought to be confounded with that of a Sale of Slaves.” In fact, Thornton wrote, such apprenticeships were required by the Slave Trade Act and Thompson was wrong to release the apprentices. (Tomkins says the act made apprenticeships optional. That Tomkins, Thornton, and Thompson have such differing views may be related to the fact that the relevant section of the act is a 716-word sentence.)

If Thornton’s letter came as a disappointment, Wilberforce’s no doubt came as a blow. “I entirely subscribe” to Thornton’s conclusion, he said. “I wish I had time to go into particulars respecting the difficulties which forced us into acquiescing in the system of apprenticing.” Thompson’s assertion that the abolitionists could do away with apprenticeship if they wanted to, Wilberforce wrote, “has drawn forth at once a smile and a sigh …. I will only assure you that you were never more mistaken.”

Weeks later, Wilberforce wrote again. “The manner of your coming home will be such, I trust, as to prevent public discredit.” The government had not yet told Thompson he was being replaced as governor, but the directors of the Sierra Leone Company had made up their minds. “I could not but acquiesce in their unanimous reasoning and conclusion,” Wilberforce wrote.

Thompson left quietly, eventually becoming a military general and an MP himself. His replacement, meanwhile, reinstated apprenticeships. The incident—and possibly many of the horrors of Sierra Leone apprenticeships—would have remained buried in private correspondence had not a fired Sierra Leone judge publicized the matter (along with a host of other accusations both erroneous and ludicrous).

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“He was a very angry person with an axe to grind,” Tomkins writes, noting that the judge showed no concern about the apprenticeships while in office. “Either he didn’t know what he was talking about or decided to throw everything he could to do as much damage as possible, regardless of the facts. Still, he did bring to light information that was buried and that was in the public interest.”

The judge’s 84-page pamphlet ignited a scandal. But it was eventually forgotten, Tomkins says, as Wilberforce became “an icon for the Victorian period and a British hero. No one’s story was told more in children’s textbooks than his, and this part of the story fell by the wayside.”

A Permanent Stain?

Every successful reformer inevitably faces criticism that they aren’t reforming enough. And, as with Wilberforce, these complaints come from both the idealistic and the cynical who merely use idealism as a weapon. But that doesn’t completely stifle the question: Does Wilberforce’s support of de facto slavery in Sierra Leone tarnish his central legacy in abolishing the slave trade, and eventually slavery itself? Tens of thousands of slaves were being traded each year in the British Empire before the Slave Trade Act. How much should the annual enslavement of a few hundred in the abolitionists’ Sierra Leone subtract from that feat?

“I can only look to the 20 years Wilberforce spent working on this issue and think that for someone who had given so much to fighting slavery, if there had been a way to get rid of the apprenticeships, he would have worked to do it,” says Tomkins, who calls himself a critical fan of Wilberforce.

“Wilberforce was much more of a political realist than people give him credit for, but he was also a campaigner for his whole career,” he said. “He’s not someone who would have worked well in government itself, running the country.”

In Sierra Leone, however, Wilberforce and his friends were running a country, or at least a colony. And that may have limited the scope of his vision. As Lindsay says, “Most leaders feel that there are significant limits to what they can do. Pastors assume CEOs can really move the deal, but the CEOs feel very limited and constrained in doing just that.” But Lindsay’s research also shows that those leaders can do much more than they think. (That Wilberforce faced the same struggle, Lindsay says, may endear him even more to cosmopolitan Christians.)

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Tomkins says both Wilberforce and Thompson had views of government that got in the way of reforming or ending the apprenticeship system. Wilberforce, he said, “had a deep devotion to government, a reverence for it, and was often too willing to defer to them when he could have stuck to his guns.”

Thompson, meanwhile, “was an idealist about many things, including the government, and felt that if this was happening that the government must not be aware of it.” And he wrongfully assumed that those who knew about it supported slavery and barbarism. As a result, Tomkins writes, “Thompson made a serious mistake in his choice of friends and enemies.”

When British newspapers started devoting attention to Tomkins’s new book, the Evangelical Alliance published a response. Evangelicals “may not be wholly comfortable with [Wilberforce’s] political and utilitarian calculation” in suppressing Thompson, Paul Bickley wrote. “We did not need to know this to know that evangelicals have lionized him too much.”

Does Tomkins agree? “All evangelical heroes have a certain unreality about them,” he says. “We hear all about their achievements but rarely about their personal failures. With Wilberforce there was a dark side, a political side that wasn’t always so positive. So yes, he is seen in too rosy a light and deserves to have a well-rounded understanding.”

But Tomkins isn’t eager to tear Wilberforce off his pedestal. “It’s not a moral failing or an integrity issue. Wilberforce was involved in a political system in which he made compromises that sit uncomfortably with his idealism and with what he accomplished. It doesn’t detract from what he achieved. But it does need to be remembered alongside it.”

Ted Olsen is Christianity Today's managing editor for news and online journalism.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has also published a number of articles about Wilberforce, including:

What I Learned from Wilberforce |One of Amazing Grace's producers says the film's protagonist taught him much about how to change the world. (November 13, 2007)
What Would Wilberforce Do? | The 19th-century abolitionists have much to teach us about politics today. (February 19, 2007)
The Wilberforce Strategy | Britain's great abolitionist worked to change society's values, not just its laws. (February 19, 2007)
On a Justice Mission | Thanks to William Wilberforce, we already know the key to defeating slavery. (February 22, 2007)
A Politician Explains the Faith | One hundred fifty years before C. S. Lewis, William Wilberforce wrote the 'Mere Christianity' of his time. (January 20, 2006)

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