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Were The Christian Abolitionists Wrong?

Were The Christian Abolitionists Wrong?

Ahead of next month’s American election, Christian pro-life advocates are being criticized for repeating much of the same things Christian abolitionists said about politics in their time.

Actually, more than that: many of the Christians criticizing pro-life advocates are repeating much of the same things pro-slavery advocates said about Christian abolitionists 200 years ago. 

In other words, if William Wilberforce was an abolitionist against abortion today, many of the people—including Christians—who celebrate him would criticize or condemn him. 

That’s because dead heroes have always been less controversial than living heroes. We like justice advocates better when they’re dead—when they’re not in a position to challenge or offend us. 

Many of us have become wary of Christians who actively campaign for a political cause. And that isn’t an illegitimate concern. There are too many examples of Christians who forget they are more than advocates for a cause—they are ambassadors for Christ. Nevertheless, as ambassadors of Christ, we should pursue the repentance of sinners and what William Wilberforce called “the reformation of manners”.

Meaning, we should obey God. We should hate evil, love good, and establish justice. And what’s politics other than the pursuit of justice—or injustice—in society? Wilberforce and the abolitionists understood this. That’s why they became politicians to establish justice for slaves. 

Wilberforce said: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

But many professing Christians in his time were severely opposed to his abolitionist campaign, including prominent members of his denomination, the Church of England. In fact, their opposition to Wilberforce was remarkably similar to the kind of opposition pro-life Christians receive from other Christians today. 

Just as many people today claim pro-life advocates are one-issue voters who only care about pre-born babies at the expense of others, many people in Wilberforce’s time claimed he was a one-issue politician who only cared about slaves at the expense of others. 

For instance, one Anglican journalist and politician said: 

“You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes. . . .[But] Never have you done one single act in favor of the laborers of this country.”

That was a lie—just as the similar accusation against pro-life advocates is a lie. Wilberforce consistently donated a quarter of his yearly income to help poor people. And he created the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor to help widows and orphans. Nevertheless, like the lies against pro-life advocates today, the lies against William Wilberforce effectively deceived many professing Christians into campaigning and voting against justice. 

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And yet, like pro-life Christians today, despite decades of seemingly little progress and many attempts to distract them from their cause—Christian abolitionists refused to support politicians who campaigned against justice.

One of these abolitionists was Stephen James. He was a close friend and brother-in-law of William Wilberforce. He once said:

“I would as soon affiance myself in bonds of friendship with a man who had strangled my infant child, as lend my feeble support to an administration disposed to violate the sacred duty of adhering to and enforcing the abolition of the slave trade.”

Shortly after those words, Stephen James—and William Wilberforce—wrote what became known as the Slave Trade Act 1807, a bill that abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. 

It’s becoming increasingly controversial for pro-life Christians to maintain that we Christians shouldn’t have freedom to lend our feeble support to politicians who are committed to violating our sacred duty of making abortion illegal.

In other words, for many Christians, it’s become divisive and wrong for Christians like me to emulate abolitionists like William Wilberforce. 

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