Monday, March 05, 2012

For good or ill?

Norm has put up a link to a review of a new book on William Wilberforce and has commented on Wilberforce's evangelical Christianity, pointing out that:
He doesn't sound like providing much evidence for the proposition that the effects of religion are thoroughly bad. I wonder if there might be something wrong with that proposition.
I have written before that I agree with Norm that there is sufficient empirical evidence to question any notion that religion is necessarily a force for evil, however, Wilberforce is a great example of the double-edged-sword of high minded religiosity.  On the one hand we have his leadership of the campaign against the slave trade, for which he is rightly famous, even if he was no enemy of wage slavery at home. On the other, we have his role in founding, in 1802, one of the nastiest organisations of the early nineteenth century, one that was a direct emanation of his evangelical beliefs, The Society for the Suppression of Vice (SSV).

Wilberforce had previously spoken in favour of legislation against adultery, which he saw as being "of much more importance than any question about peace and war" and was the prime mover behind George III issuing a proclamation against vice in 1787, becoming vice-president of the resulting, and wholly ineffective, Proclamation Society. The SSV was more active and was known mainly for its network of spies reporting people for trading on Sundays (as well as a corruption scandal), leading to a string of prosecutions of shopkeepers and publicans. The Society's activists also targeted the book trade, looking for salacious popular literature. The aim was to remove the temptations open to the working class to use their one free day for pleasure instead of religious observance.

I think that the most pernicious activity of the Society was its determination to suppress free speech and freedom of thought in religion. As a result of its actions, the radical secularist, Richard Carlile, ended up spending a total of nine years in prison. In 1819, after being attacked by the SSV, Carlile was convicted of the crime of blasphemy for re-publishing Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. He was sentenced to three years, extended to six, as he could not pay the additional fine of £1,500. He was not alone, others were prosecuted, including eight of his shop-workers.

So we are left with a far more complex picture of the legacy of Wilberforce's Christianity. His religious beliefs led him both to oppose slavery and to directly champion deeply illiberal and oppressive causes. It was as if Martin Luther King and Rick Santorum were the same person. And this is the problem for any historian not willing to embrace ambiguity. Whilst religion has been a cause of discord, violence and mass murder, it has inspired acts of courage and virtue. I suppose much depends on whether the religious pick out from the morass of conflicting doctrines the morals that compel acts of justice and compassion, or whether they cleave to identity politics and self-righteousness, seeing religion to be a dogma to be imposed on others. The problem with Wilberforce is that he did both.


See the comments section below. The author of Wilberforce: Family and Friends, Anne Stott, has pointed out that Wilberforce was not the founder of the SSV. She has suggested the following as the most authoritative source on the founding of the Society:
M. D. J. Roberts, 'The Society for the Suppression of Vice and its Early Critics, 1802-1812', Historical Journal, 26 (1983), 159-76.


Anonymous said...

I found another interesting article on Carlile the other day, which discusses his role in Freemasonry and the penalties he paid for keeping the Age of Reason in print.

Anne said...

I don't disagree with your article, but there are a couple of points I'd like to make. (1) Wilberforce didn't found the Vice Society (which was High Church rather than evangelical in inspiration) and to the best of my knowledge had no formal links with it. (2) The comparison with Santorum is pushing it a bit. Santorum is extreme by our standards. Two hundred years ago, he'd surely be much more mainstream.
Best wishes, Anne (Stott), author, Wilberforce: Family and Friends

The Plump said...

Thank you for commenting Anne. My expertise is in the radical politics of the second half of the Nineteenth Century, and even then it is mainly free-thinkers that have interested me, so I am happy to be corrected.

The sources that I used that mention the link between Wilberforce and the Vice Society were:
1. Ben Wilson, Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789-1837, Faber, 2008.
2. J M Robertson, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century, 1929 reprinted 2001, Thoemmes Press.

Robertson describes it as "Wilberforce's old Society" on page 62 in discussing the Carlile case.

As for Santorum, he was chosen for effect rather than accuracy, as indeed was Martin Luther King.

There is an interesting debate here about class and mainstream morality at the turn of the 18th/19th Centuries, given the perceived need for moral reform movements.

Good luck with the book. It is good to see something from a fellow adult education person. I shall now explore your own blogs with interest.