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Mr Wilberforce's Halo Slips

The reputation of evangelicalism’s greatest hero – William Wilberforce – took a dent last week.
Steven Tomkins, author of a new book on the Clapham Sect, has dug up Colonial Office papers from Sierra Leone (the colony of freed slaves set up by the Clapham Sect) which revealed that a form of unwaged labour called ‘apprenticeships’ – effectively a form a slavery – persisted in the colony with the support of Wilberforce for years after the abolition of the trade.

After the 1807 Slave Trade Act, the Royal Navy started intercepting slaving ships and rescuing slaves. According to Tomkins, the rescued slaves would be taken to Freetown , where the authorities either kept them for unpaid labour or sold them on to landowners. The only difference between the ‘apprentices’ and slaves was that the apprentices could only be kept for 14 years.

The apprenticeship system is not news – the fact the Wilberforce directly supported it is. An idealistic young governor of Sierra Leone and future parliamentarian, Thomas Perronet Thompson, wrote to Wilberforce protesting the system. Wilberforce responded by saying, ’I wish I had time to go into particulars respecting the difficulties which forced us into acquiescing in the system of apprenticing’. Thompson apparently continued to object and began to free the slaves. He was sacked by the managers of the colony – the group we call the Clapham Sect.

Tomkins argues that we should not claim that Wilberforce was corrupt, or think that this places a question mark over his sincerity in abolitionism. Rather, Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect took the view that the 1807 Act would not have passed without the apprenticeship clause, and that once passed they felt duty bound to stick to it. They acceded to the retention of slavery in Freetown in exchange for the abolition of the Atlantic wide trade.

Evangelicals have been in the habit of seeing a model for political action in the Clapham Sect, and particularly in Wilberforce: his patient lifelong commitment to a just cause, grounded in Scripture, his refusal to be bowed by vested interests, his sheer commitment in the face of his own physical weakness. But in Tomkins’ research, we see a new side of this great man – one which we may not be wholly comfortable with. If Tomkins is right, Wilberforce’s support of Freetown slavery was a political and utilitarian calculation. Faced with Thompson’s idealism, Wilberforce coolly suppressed it.  

We did not need to know this to know that evangelicals have lionised him too much. His views on many other issues were dubious: he opposed trade unions through his support of the Combination Act (‘never have you done one single act, in favour of the labourers of this country’, wrote William Cobbet), opposed an inquiry into the Peterloo massacre, and thought that women should not engage in the anti–slavery campaign (a view which he also grounded in Scripture). Diehard Wilberforcians will of course argue that this is all understandable given his political and social context. That’s an entirely legitimate argument, if one which would be more persuasive if he were not at the same time feted for a humanitarianism years ahead of his time and very much against the prevailing public consensus.

We did need to know this in order that we might be reminded that we should not displace the task of understanding what a biblical and theological practice of politics looks like onto historical heroes. How are we to become faithful disciples in our own contexts? We can learn from them, but we would be wise to learn as much from their mistakes as from their successes. And though we may learn, we should not follow. Evangelicals have no business being disciples of anyone but Jesus. 

Paul Bickley, Senior Researcher, Theos - the public theology think tank


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