We live in a day of considerable political turmoil; when public emotion is being whipped up by populists bent on personal gain; and when the qualities of true statesmanship, once admired by everyone, are in short supply. Even evangelical Christians, now, are prepared to support men of bad character when specific policy gains are dangled as carrots. That is not to say that we are entirely bereft of good men in government, but they are few and far between. Probably it is time to remind ourselves what good character, Christian character, looks like when serving in public office. There are many passages in Scripture which indicate the important qualities, whether it is Psalm 15 or various narrative passages which show us good men in action. But post-biblical history also provides us with the stories of such character, both in public service and in private life. I thought it might be helpful to show you what two historians have written about the lives of a couple of England’s great Christian statesmen. These are men who achieved much in the service of Christ and their countrymen, and yet who did so without holding the most powerful offices in the land. God gave them unique opportunities, and influence that had much to do with their character.
They won respect, and that gave them the influence. Given that neither of these historians are Christians that I know of, what they write is rendered all the more remarkable. William Wilberforce My favourite biography of Wilberforce is written by William Hague, a former Conservative Party leader and Foreign Secretary in Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet. Hague is a fine political biographer, and has written on William Pitt, Wilberforce’s contemporary and friend. The thing that impresses me about Hague’s biography is his admiration of Wilberforce’s character, and the accuracy with which he makes the connection between Wilberforce’s Christian convictions and his actions. Hague recognizes three particular qualities which stood out in Wilberforce: his lovingkindness, his eloquence and his capacity for hard work. Indeed, Wilberforce was indefatigable, and the breadth of the causes he adopted makes the modern politician look distinctly unproductive by comparison. At the very end of his book, summing up Wilberforce’s character and contributions,
Hague has this to say:
Perhaps most important of all … is that all his views, some of which are seen as progressive and some as reactionary from the standpoint of a later age, were rooted in a consistent view of the importance of religion, morality and education. Just as the state of slavery was destructive of true religion, morality and any sense of responsibility, so was a state of revolution. The French Revolution had cast aside all Christian heritage and teaching: anything which threatened Britain with the same must therefore be forcefully resisted. Wilberforce did not believe in unlicensed freedom, but rather that liberty could only responsibly be exercised within a strong moral and institutional framework. To him, the existence of slavery and proposals for great domestic upheaval were both obstacles to such a framework, and there was no inconsistency in being an enemy to them simultaneously.
Abolition of the slave trade was William Wilberforce 14 Faith in Focus Volume 45/9 October 2018 William Wilberforce’s central tangible achievement, but his belief that the moral strength of society is the foundation of all else made his contribution to history far greater than one Act of Parliament. While disdaining political ambition of the conventional kind, he set out after his conversion on the most ambitious programme of them all, namely to change the entire moral climate of his country and a good deal of the world. His opposition to the slave trade was a mere manifestation of an insistence on the value of Christian principles which, when he gave voice to it, caused any hesitation or indecision to fall away. His son Samuel wrote that Wilberforce ‘said of all his public life he looked back with the greatest pleasure on his religious publication.’ His great vision of moral and spiritual enrichment was what he lived for, whether in defending the institution of marriage, attacking the practices of the slave trade or emphatically defending the Sabbath day. And just as he fought shy of political factionalism, so he steered clear of religious factionalism too: his Christianity was of a unifying, effusive and ecumenical kind …. Wilberforce was a legislator for almost the whole of his adult life, but central to his beliefs was that laws should be underpinned by a common understanding of ethics and conduct.
His ambitious and energetic promotion of his views may have contributed to the changed social conventions that dominated the Victorian age after his death, creating a British society very different from the licentious London against which he had revolted in the 1780s. As one of the ‘Fathers of the Victorians’ his views once again seem dated when seen from the vantage point of the more relaxed morality of later times, but in relation to his basic view that the longterm happiness of a society depends on how individuals behave towards each other, how families hold together, and how leaders keep the trust of the people, who can say with confidence that he was wrong? Wilberforce’s pursuit of a broad and uplifting vision of society elevates him far above the general ranks of politicians. But the fact that he managed to live according to his own principles, and constantly reflect his beliefs in his own character, is his crowning glory. It may be easier to disdain money and give much of it away if you inherit a large amount of it, but few people born in that position actually do so. It is easy to think that a Member of Parliament can resist all temptations of seeking high office if he has a great cause as an alternative, but it is still a rare event. Wilberforce exercised a genuine and remarkable self-discipline, and managed to do so while maintaining an optimistic and vivacious disposition.
His conduct as a husband, father or elected representative is hard to fault. His generosity to those who came to him in need of help became an outstanding example of the virtues he called for in others. He showed how a political career could be conducted differently, pursuing longterm objectives deeply rooted in certain principles, strengthened in his indifference to holding power by his understanding of its transitory nature. As a result, he defied the axiom that political careers necessarily end in failure, going to his grave fulfilled by the knowledge of what he had helped to do, while those politicians to whom power alone is important decline in their old age into bitterness and despair. It is the combination of Wilberforce’s achievements and his qualities that mark him out as a figure rare indeed.
Judged all round, his achievements were greater than those of most of the occupants of the highest offices in the land. But the reason he is a lasting inspiration rather than a mere notable parliamentarian is that in a long and arduous public life, he showed unyielding reverence for truth, loyalty, integrity and principle as he understood it, setting an example that has stirred the minds of generations who followed. In the dark historical landscape of violence, treachery and hate, the life of William Wilberforce stands out as a beacon of light, which the passing of two centuries has scarcely dimmed.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury:
In the generation after Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury led an equally remarkable campaign to improve the lot of the poor and needy in rapidly-industrialising Britain. He is famous for legislation ending the use of small boys as chimney sweeps; and labour laws which limited the employment of children and women in factories and coal mines. An evangelical Christian like Wilberforce, he also eschewed political office, maintaining a parliamentary independence that enabled him to speak without fear or favour on any topic. Like Wilberforce he was a loving family man whose personal character bore witness to the Christianity he held dear.
His biographer, Georgina Battiscombe, is aware of Shaftesbury’s faults – he was not as stable emotionally as Wilberforce – but he was every bit as sensitive, generous, principled, tenacious and hard-working. When recounting the earlier years of Shaftesbury’s career as a reformer, Battiscombe quotes a comment by Sir Reginald Coupland. Coupland is describing Wilberforce as the ideal parliamentary spokesman for an unpopular social reform; but she feels that his words apply equally well to Shaftesbury when engaged in the campaign to limit the working day of children to ten hours: If the country must first be schooled and roused the second step must be to break through the apathy of Parliament… And for this a politician is needed, and a politician endowed with very rare gifts indeed. He must possess, in the first place, the virtues of a fanatic without his vices.
He must be palpably single-minded and unself-seeking. He must be strong enough to face opposition and ridicule, staunch enough to endure obstruction and delay. In season and out of season, he must thrust his cause on Parliament’s attention. Yet, somehow or other, Parliament must not be bored. He must not be regarded as the tiresome victim of an idee fixe, well-meaning possibly, but an intolerable nuisance. Somehow or other he must be persistent, yet not unpopular. Secondly, he must possess the intellectual power to grasp an intricate subject, the clarity of mind to deal with a great mass of detailed evidence, the eloquence to expound it lucidly and effectively.
He must be able to speak from the same brief a score of times without surfeiting his audience with a hash of stale meat. And he must have a natural delicacy of feeling. He will have terrible things to say; they will form an important part of his case; but in the choice of them and in the manner in which he says them he must avoid the besetting sin of the professional humanitarian. He must never be morbid. He must not seem to take a pleasure in dwelling on the unsavoury vices of his fellow men. He must not pile up the horrors and revel in atrocious detail. He must shock, but not nauseate, the imagination of his hearers. Finally, he must be a man of recognised position in society and politics. It must be impossible to deride him in London drawing rooms as an obscure crank, a wild man from beyond the pale. And he must have, or by some means obtain a footing in Downing Street. For without at least some shadow of support from Government his task might well prove desperate.