Be the change

Mind your manners, says Wilberforce

Lyndon Bowring, Executive Chairman of CARE, comments on a cause close to the heart of the Christian community. 

 You may not realise that William Wilberforce, who was most famous for abolishing human slavery throughout the British Empire, had a greater passion.

This was to see a ‘reformation of manners’ in British society. By ‘manners’ he meant the kind of living which stems from genuine Christian faith.

Wilberforce realised that society can only change for the better when individuals are personally transformed by the Christian gospel.

Although hundreds of thousands of poor people were converted at that time through evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley, the British middle and upper classes were virtually untouched.

In 1797, Wilberforce published a personal manifesto, plainly stating his Christian beliefs and saying he considered most people in the middle and upper classes were not real Christians at all.

This book was hugely successful, with 25 editions over the next 30 years. It reached North America and India and was translated into five European languages.

John Newton, the famous reformed slave-trader, later Anglican clergyman and author of ‘Amazing Grace’, deemed it ‘the most valuable and important publication of the present age’.

There is no doubt that God used it to bring about a massive spiritual change in many, and in time this had a major impact on politics.

Throughout British society and the Empire reformers like Lord Shaftesbury, Thomas Barnardo, Elizabeth Fry and a host of other committed Christians dedicated their lives to protecting the most vulnerable.

The serious moral and social ills of the late 1700s gradually diminished. Nineteenth-century British businessmen were now trusted to be honest; ‘my word is my bond’ became a well-known phrase.

Numerous laws were passed to improve the lives of the poor, and charitable work flourished.

In 1885, The Times claimed that the income of charities in London alone was more than that of some Europe-an governments, ‘...exceeding the revenue of Sweden, Denmark and Portugal, and double that of the Swiss confederation’.

And an estimated 75 per cent of these philanthropic societies helping needy people were set up by committed Christians.

Wilberforce’s belief that Christian conversion comes first before the reformation of society was proved correct, and his message is just as relevant today.

During Covid the Christian church made use of the amazing online opportunities to share the gospel with people all over the world – for example by streaming church services and through ministries like ‘Alpha’.

Let’s believe and trust that we too will rejoice at the transformation in people’s lives and then in society as a whole.

It’s estimated that there are more people in slavery today than there were in Wilberforce’s day, and maybe it’s through committed Christians rising to the challenge that we will see this terrible injustice come to an end.


First published in the October 2021 issue of Direction, Elim’s monthly magazine. Subscribe now to get Direction delivered to your home.

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