- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

It is very popular today to talk about transforming culture. There are people of faith who talk about this. But, there are many others who are transforming culture and mean something totally different. Currently, it is hard to find people to talk about whether transformation is for good or for evil. Hitler transformed the culture around him, but it was for evil.

There are some amazing people who are heroes known and unknown who have transformed the culture and the world for the good and made the world a better place. In this Special Section, we would like to focus on those people.

We start with William Wilberforce who was one of these amazing people who changed the world for the good and made the world a better place. He established a formula that works today. Wilberforce loved others, particularly the oppressed in slavery and in prison, and he fought for their freedom.

Wilberforce was a man of some means, but was not extremely wealthy. He had inherited a decent sum of money. He was also a prominent Parliamentarian with lots of good connections. He was a man who set goals for himself. On Sunday, October 28, 1787, he sat down at his desk and wrote “God Almighty has given me two objectives: The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners,” the latter of which meant the reformation of morals in England. Despite huge obstacles, Wilberforce accomplished both in his lifetime.

In Parliament, Wilberforce led the efforts to abolish the slave trade which was signed into law in England on March 25, 1807. When the King gave his royal assent three weeks after President Thomas Jefferson signed a similar bill in the U.S. Wilberforce, however, did not give up. He continued on and just before he died in 1833, he saw Parliament in the final stages of abolishing slavery in all of the British Empire, something that ultimately eluded the U.S. which had to fight the Civil War.

Wilberforce was at the same time able to reform the manners of England. It is hard to believe how debauched and dissolute England had become. The prints such as “Gin Lane” of Bishop William Hogarth, the British printmaker, remind us that England was decadent and a very troubled society in the late 18th century. At the suggestion of Wilberforce and one of his friends, Bishop Porteus, the Archbishop of Canterbury requested that King George III issue in 1787 the Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice, a proclamation that commanded the prosecution of those guilty of “excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day and other dissolute, immoral or disorderly practices.” While the public was largely indifferent, Wilberforce mobilized the celebrities of the day and founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He also focused on cleaning up the lesser offenses in life drunkenness, lewdness, indecent publications, disorderly public houses and not honoring the Sabbath in his time a strategy that many years later in the 1990s the Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani would use to reduce crime in New York by cleaning up the minor crimes of “broken windows” to create an atmosphere of greater law and order that prevented more serious crimes from happening.

Wilberforce also wrote A Practical View of Real Christianity. His publisher was skeptical that with Wilberforce’s name as a politician on it that any more than 500 copies could be sold. However, it was a huge success for 50 years. By 1825, there were 13 editions in England and 26 editions in the United States, even though Wilberforce never traveled to the U.S. It was translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish, a remarkable feat for the time.

Wilberforce was the first great philanthropist independent of the monarchy. He paved the way and set the standard for philanthropy. Ironically, when newspapers and magazines write today about philanthropy they have no idea who Wilberforce was.

One of the brilliant things that Wilberforce did in philanthropy was to get engaged in 69 societies, which we would call non-profit organizations. Wilberforce took a leading and active role in many. He was vice president of 29, on the Committee of 5, Governor of 5, Treasurer of 1 and Patron of 1. Wilberforce had very focused efforts, including Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Anti-Slavery Society, The British and Foreign Bible Society, the National Gallery of Art, the Humanization of the English Criminal Code, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which became the model for the Humane Society in America, and many other societies.

Through actively engaging the public square, Wilberforce by the end of his life was able to end slavery in the British Empire and reform British morals, manners and had made Britain a much more civilized place which eventually led only a few years later to greater piety and respect for faith and ultimately Victorianism under Queen Victoria.

What Wilberforce did in his time is a model for us today of what we can do when we set our minds and hearts to it.

• Chuck Stetson is CEO of Essentials in Education.

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