You can’t transform society without believing that lives and society must be changed, working to change minds, forcefully articulating your views on what the world should be, and strong and constant activism. And one of the most-powerful examples of the power of evangelicalism — and one that school reformers should embrace today — can be found in the work of William Wilberforce and the cadre of men and women who successfully fought for the end of the global slave trade and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Certainly in this day and age, the very idea of people being bought and sold as if they were mere material goods is beyond blasphemy. But for most of human history, various forms of slavery– including Russian serfdom, the enslavement of Sub-Saharan Africans and Eastern Europeans by Muslims during the Middle Ages, and the indentured servitude that was common in the British colonies in the Western Hemisphere before the early 1700s — was not only common, but accepted as a given. By the time of the American Revolution, the Atlantic slave trade, characterized by the Middle Passage — or mercantilism-driven shipping of enslaved men and women from West African nations such as the Ivory Coast and Liberia to what is now the United States and the Caribbean, had become a dominant aspect of society and economy in most of the world outside of Asia. For merchants and governments in Great Britain and in the Americas, the trading of six million Africans was well worth the fortunes reaped from cash crops and goods such as tobacco and rum.
Slavery was never a fully accepted institution. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church constantly opposed slavery, particularly to the Muslim world, while in 1542, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V enacted the Law of the Indies, which declared that American Indians and other Natives in the New World were not allowed to be enslaved. But most did little to actively oppose it and push for the end of the peculiarly evil institution. This all began to change by the late 18th-century when a group of men and women began to recognize the moral and social damage the slave trade was wrecking. These evangelicals, influenced by the preaching of clerics such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley, who emphasized the importance of personal awakening and experience in becoming Christians (as well as the importance of actively saving souls through religious conversion), believed that all people were saved by God’s grace and Jesus Christ’s personal sacrifice on the cross. From where they sat, slavery was not only unacceptable, but an evil and affront to the Creator that could no longer be allowed to continue. So they could no longer stand idly by as some four million Africans died on slave ships and even more were subjected to the brutality of life in slavery (including the splitting apart of whole families by plantation owners documented by Virginia Tech professor Wilma Dunaway and other historians).
In 1754, Quaker Anthony Benezet would foment the anti-slavery movement by launching the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage; three decades later, Benezet’s advocacy would influence Thomas Clarkson, the son of an Anglican cleric, who go on to form the influential Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Joining the younger Clarkson was John Newton, a merchant seaman and slave trader-turned-minister who became an evangelical Christian after God answered his prayers during a particularly harrowing voyage. No longer able to tolerate slavery and haunted by his own memories of the inhumane conditions of slave trading, the man who would write Amazing Grace, became one of the foremost abolitionists of his time.
But movements aren’t just driven by grassroots zeal alone. The most-successful of them are also driven by men and women working in the political realm dedicated to all aspects of what it means to be an evangelical. For the abolitionist movement, Wilberforce became that figure. The son of a wealthy British merchant whose association with political mastermind William Pitt the Younger led to a seat in the House of Commons, Wilberforce spent most of his early years nurturing his political ambitions and penchant for playing cards until 1784, when he began reading theologian Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul during a tour of Europe. The lessons from Doddridge so stirred Wilberforce that he began reading the Bible and questioned how he conducted his entire life; a consultation with Newton — by then, the Rector of the St. Mary Woolnoth church in London — led Wilberforce to embrace evangelical Christian ideals.
For evangelical abolitionists such as Clarkson, a friend of Wilberforce from their days in preparatory school, Wilberforce’s personality and standing in Parliament made him the perfect spokesman for their movement. By 1787, convinced by Clarkson and Newton to oppose slavery, and driven by his own desire to put his Christianity into action, Wilberforce began lobbying Pitt the Younger to pass a law abolishing the slave trade. Along with Clarkson, Wilberforce would then convene the first meeting of the Society, attracting men and women driven to oppose slavery both by their own Christian conversions and the writings of former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, whose own autobiography riveted British audiences.
As befitting a movement driven by evangelicalism, the anti-slavery and abolition movement brought the practices that fostered the First Great Awakening of the middle part of the 18th century into their own advocacy. They held meetings where former slaves would captivate audiences with tales of their capture and enslavement, while onetime slave traders would talk about their horrific actions in order to earn profits. The Society and other groups would also borrow from the Enlightenment movement’s leading lights, including Voltaire and Thomas Paine, by distributing pamphlets and other polemics. Abolitionists even pioneered new advocacy practices. They staged protest rallies, ran petition drives and signature-gathering efforts so they could bring their demands to the House of Commons, and even created the forerunners of the slogan-bearing stickers and pins of today by selling medallions and figurines made from pottery crafted at pottery entrepreneur Joseph Wedgewood’s famed earthenware factory.
By 1788, Wilberforce had convinced Pitt to launch an investigation into the British slave trade; the resulting report that came out a year later, along with Clarkson’s own evidence detailing the evils of slavery, gave Wilberforce the evidence he needed to offer 12 proposals to end the trade. But just as Wilberforce and his supporters had almost marshaled enough votes to end the trade, he made a strategic error, by reluctantly agreeing to a demand from slave trade supporters to allow Parliament to collect its own evidence. As a result, a vote on the slave trade was delayed by a year, leaving the practice in place to continue. The faltering came at a bad time. Slave trade supporters successfully played upon fears of anarchy stoked by the advent of the French Revolution; the revolt by slaves led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture in French Hispaniola, which would lead to the formation of Haiti, would also play into the hands of slave trade advocates. Starting in 1790, slave traders would easily defeated Wilberforce’s first push to end their enterprise, and would continue to do so for most of the next 17 years.
Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists may have been bloodied. But they were also unbowed. They approached winning support in the same way evangelical preachers looked at gaining converts, articulating the morality of opposing slavery. This won Wilberforce and his allies such supporters as the Clapham Sect, a collection of wealthy Anglican-believing families who lived in the section of London where Wilberforce resided, as well as from Quakers (who had long opposed slavery), Methodists, and Baptists (which would allow slaves to become members of the denomination by ditching rules requiring members to be literate and simply letting them declare their Christian witness). At the same time, abolitionists took to demonstrating how free Africans were capable of sustaining themselves economically and building societies of their own. In 1792, Wilberforce, Clarkson and others start two colonies in what is now Sierra Leone where former slaves could live freely, govern their own affairs, and develop their own economies. The more-successful of the two colonies, now Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown, would become a formidable example for abolitionists to use in their efforts to end the slave trade. Meanwhile Wilberforce and his allies constantly advocated their ideas in word and print — and got others to either fully support their cause or echo their criticisms of slavery itself. The poet William Blake, then an obscure figure, would argue strongly against slavery in Songs of Innocence, especially in the poem and etching, The Little Black Boy. Former military man John Gabriel Stedman’s harsh criticism of slave treatment (even as he steadfastly defended the institution) in The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam would also galvanize support for ending the trade.
By 1804, with the French Revolution moving from the bloodiness of the Reign of Terror to the first days of Napoleonic dictatorship, abolitionists would find themselves ready to make a stronger push to end the slave trade. Clarkson, whose health had been in precarious shape for much of the turn of the 19th century, was now healthy enough to ride around Great Britain to speak against slavery. Wilberforce’s efforts would inspire a new group of abolitionists such as Zachary Macauley, the son of a Scottish preacher who would collect even more evidence of the slave trade’s inhumanity, and Wilberforce’s brother-in-law, James Stephen, who would eventually author the British law that would outlaw the slave trade for good. An independent who never served either as a Tory or a Whig, Wilberforce would practice bipartisanship by cobbling together allies from both parties, including Prime Minister Lord Grenville. Wilberforce and other abolitionists also embraced political savvy by tailoring their anti-slavery proposals more narrowly, pushing to ban British citizens from engaging in slave-trading in French-controlled colonies; this led to the passage of the Foreign Slave Trade Bill, which marked the movement’s first major political victory. By 1806, abolitionists had successfully made abolishing the slave trade a critical issue in that year’s Parliamentary election; they would succeed in electing abolitionists to the Commons, building a strong coalition. With new allies in their corner, later, Wilberforce and his allies would move in 1807 to pass the Slave Trade Act, effectively banning slave-trading in the British Empire.
It would take Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists 26 years more years before successfully pushing the British government to abolish slavery altogether. Wilberforce wouldn’t live to see it happen, dying just days before the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. But the effects of the evangelical activism of Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists would be far-reaching. Through what is now Anti-Slavery International, abolitionists would help support the work of American counterparts such as John Brown, whose bloody raid at Harper’s Ferry would help pave the path to the American Civil War; its refusal to seat six American women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, would help foster the women’s rights movement that would lead to universal voting rights for all citizens. The work of Wilberforce and others inspired the American abolitionist movement that would eventually foster the civil rights movement of a century later. And the effects of evangelical abolitionism remain far-reaching. Wilberforce’s interests in using his Christianity to make the world better would lead him to help start the first animal humane society, launch one of the first Christian organizations dedicated to spreading the Word throughout the known world, and supporting efforts to end India’s oppressive and inhumane caste system.
For school reformers, there is plenty to be learned from Wilberforce’s example. And gleaning those lessons is critical to ensuring that systemic reform of American public education. It starts by embracing the moral force that drives our efforts, understanding that we are charged both by our Creator and by our obligation to our fellow man to overhaul all the systems that feed into the schools at the center of the lives of our children so that all of our kids can know their own names.
Contrary to the arguments of some reformers, notably American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess, we must be the conscience of men and women who should know better (and, for the sake of their own enlightened self-interest, make sure that both other people’s children and their own can get a high-quality education), and that means scolding those who do aid and abet practices that harm the futures of our children. At the same time, we must offer solutions that lead more people to live up to their moral obligations, and constantly articulate why transforming how we provide teaching and curricula to our children must change for the better.
As reformers, we must also be advocates in all corners. This means grassroots work in communities, helping the 51 million single parents, grandparents, and immigrant families in their quests to provide their children with schools fit for their futures. It also means working in a bipartisan manner in policymaking circles, from lobbying congressional and statehouse leaders to working with reform-minded governors to achieve our goals. And it involves strong political advocacy, supporting those candidates who will be reliable supporters of reform and working to vote out those politicians who don’t deserve another term.
Finally, we must always remember that systemic reform involves changing minds. This means working hard to convert those who are on the fence or oppose our views to our side. This means using every tool in our arsenal, including the power of media. As Choice Media TV founder Bob Bowdon has noted, the school reform movement has far too many Thomas Jeffersons creating ideas, and not enough Thomas Paines espousing them strongly in public. We need more Thomas Paines, Ida B. Welles, William Lloyd Garrisons, and Davis Guggenheims writing and filming on our behalf. Reformers must learn to embrace those outsiders who can serve as ambassadors for our cause and not alienate them by decrying them as being “simplistic” in their message.
Being a school reformer means being an evangelical for our children. And all of us in the movement should embrace this role the way William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists did two centuries ago.