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Institute on Religion & Democracy

William Wilberforce and The Better Hour

Jim Tonkowich
February 11, 2008

"It was the faithful, persistent and enduring enthusiasm of William Wilberforce," wrote abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave, and moved the strong arm of that government in mercy to put an end to his bondage. Let no American withhold generous recognition of this stupendous achievement--a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, and a victory for the whole human race."

William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament from 1784 to 1812, was someone, said President Abraham Lincoln in 1858, whose name and accomplishments "schoolboys know."  Of course, in 2008 schoolboys, schoolgirls, and their parents, for the most part, have no idea who Wilberforce was or what he did.

February 23, 2007, marked the 200th anniversary of the first of William Wilberforce's great political and moral triumphs.  It was the day the British Parliament finally passed Wilberforce's bill abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire.  The victory came after more than twenty years of political effort, personal anguish, and grassroots activism that changed the shape of British culture for decades.

Wilberforce's second great political and moral triumph came twenty-six years later in 1833.  As Wilberforce lay on his deathbed he heard the news that slavery itself had been abolished in the British Empire.  Millions were freed, setting the stage for abolition in the United States as well.

Last year, the movie Amazing Grace introduced William Wilberforce to millions.  This month a new documentary that I recently previewed will debut on PBS stations across the country.  The Better Hour: The Legacy of William Wilberforce probes deeper into Wilberforce's life and the lives of his closest friends, colleagues, and supporters--the so called "Clapham Circle."

Wilberforce's combination of evangelical zeal, theological orthodoxy, political savvy, and complete integrity is a story that needs to be told over and over again.  He is the premier example of the kind of Christian involvement in politics and the Public Square that we at the IRD hope to encourage and embody.

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