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BOOK REVIEW: When faith refined manners
By William Wilberforce
Forgotten Books, $34.95, 207 pages
Famed British abolitionist William Wilberforce began his profoundly influential political career when he was just 21. Four years later, already in position to gain great political power because of his close friendship with the young Prime Minister William Pitt, Wilberforce converted to Christianity and spent months agonizing over whether to retire from the political scene. He finally decided instead to use his political position to carry out the two burdens he felt the Lord had given him: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners in England.
Wilberforce was without doubt the most instrumental force in the abolition of the British slave trade, but although ending slavery was one of his driving passions, Wilberforce felt an equal desire to see the “reformation of manners” in England in his day. He felt this transformation would come only as a result of religious piety, and he sought to re-instill devotion and love of God in his countrymen.
The young abolitionist began with a lifelong campaign to awaken harshly opposed fellow lawmakers to the horrors of the slave trade, risking his friendship with Pitt and losing the respect of many members of Parliament along the way.
“So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition,” he wrote. “Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
In 1807, when Wilberforce was 48 years old, the slave trade finally was abolished in the British Empire, though it was not until 1833 that abolition was enforced and slaves were emancipated throughout the empire.
His 1797 book, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted With Real Christianity,” gives insight into both the motivation for the abolitionist’s lifelong work and the reason for the priority he put on faith in reforming manners.
In “Real Christianity,” recently reissued by Forgotten Books, Wilberforce sets forth the differences between a genuine, biblical faith and the nominal Christianity prevalent in his culture. With beautifully clear and simple prose, he explores the purpose of Christianity - the worship of God - and traces the lack of manners in his society to an inadequate conception of God and Christianity. Because people do not worship the God they profess, Wilberforce says, they live unaffected by the Gospel that should be the most pervasive influence over their lives and behavior. Their inadequate understanding of God leads to sin that affects all of society.
“These men wish to reform,” he writes, “but they know neither the real nature of their distemper nor its true remedy. … Having no conception of the actual malignity of the disease under which they labor, or of the perfect cure which the Gospel has provided for it, or of the manner in which that cure is to be effected, ‘They do but skim and film the ulcerous place, while rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen.’ “
The first half of the book explores common inadequacies in a nonbeliever’s or nominal believer’s conceptions, those of God, Jesus Christ, human nature and Christianity. In the second half, Wilberforce speaks on the excellence of real Christianity as set forth in Scripture and compares it with the common practice of professing believers.
His conclusion is that the pervasive lack of real faith - what he calls the “prevailing opinion” - is a problem relevant to the whole culture because it leads to the individual selfishness at the root of many societal sins, including the slave trade he fought so hard to abolish.
The book had great implications for Wilberforce’s England. The reformation of manners, in his eyes, could come only from men bent on holiness; no amount of mere good intentions had sufficient power to stop the casualties of loose morals afflicting his country. He speaks with an astonishing depth of insight into the causes and effects of apathetic faith, at once stern and full of the desire to see his people’s dangerous lethargy changed to reforming zeal.
Far from applying solely to Wilberforce’s England, though, the arguments in “Real Christianity” remain true and relevant today. The book prompts its contemporary reader to consider that the same “inadequate conceptions” of God and Christianity Wilberforce writes about are apparent in today’s religion, and the results are the same now as they were then. His call for the reformation of manners through genuine faith has not lost the weight it carried when he wrote it more than 200 years ago. Such a powerful book will remain relevant until our faith truly becomes what Wilberforce called real Christianity.
Michal Elseth, a Hillsdale College alumna, interned with The Washington Times this summer through the National Journalism Center.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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