Wilberforce, Slavery, Sexual Morality and R.P.George

Wilberforce and A Practical View

200 years ago saw the fruits of Wilberforce's campaign to end the evil British slave trade, for which we thank God. The film Amazing Grace plus a number of Radio and TV programmes have brought William Wilberforce to the attention of a public audience in a remarkable way.

However, what has not been so well reported is the fact that in his day Wilberforce was not only known for being anti-slavery but also for being the author of A Practical View. The full title of the book is "A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the higher and middle classes in this country contrasted with real Christianity." The publisher thought no one would want the book in the decadent Britain of the late 18th century. A mere 500 copies were printed. These went immediately; so 75,000 more copies were run off. By 1837 there had been fifteen editions, each with thousands of books. In America there had been 25 editions and the book was translated into German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch. Wilberforce knew there was a connection with "real Christianity" and the social order. He said that real Christianity was powerfully adapted "to promote the preservation and health of political communities." This related to his own personal calling. From his own conversion at the age of 25 he confessed that "God Almighty has put before me two great objects – the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of the manners [or lifestyle and morality] of England."

For Wilberforce lifestyle and morality most certainly included sexual morality. Wilberforce would be horrified, therefore, at the way his campaign to secure freedom for slaves is being used to champion campaigns to abolish fundamental restraints on sexual immorality, not least homosexual immorality. Wilberforce bewailed the fact that in his day people's "standard of right and wrong is not the standard of the Gospel; they approve and condemn by a different rule; they advance principles, and maintain opinions, altogether opposite to the genius and character of Christianity." And what was the problem? Wilberforce answered: "The truth is, their opinions on the subject of religion are not formed from the perusal of the Word of God." Because people were so ignorant of biblical Christianity, when attacks were made against it, they had no defence. He said:
"Knowing Christianity chiefly in the difficulties which it contains, and in the impossibilities which are falsely imputed to it, they fall, perhaps, into the company of infidels; there they are shaken by frivolous objections and profane cavils, which, had their religious persuasion been grounded in reason and argument, would have passed them by as the idle wind."

Robert P. George

Robert P.George, a distinguished Professor of Law at Princeton University in the United States, wrote a short piece related to all this for the April 2007 edition of Touchstone: A magazine of Mere Christianity (www.touchstonemag.com). It is reprinted here with the permission of the editor, David Mills. The title in the magazine is "Emancipation Bible" - with a subtitle being "on the Pro-Choice arguments for Slavery and Sodomy." Professor George writes as follows:-

"In a posting on a law professor’s weblog, a scholar who argues for the revision of Catholic teaching to accept homosexual conduct in 'loving, committed relationships' claimed to be struck by similarities in the use of Scripture between the contemporary debate over homosexuality and the nineteenth-century debate over slavery. What he, and others who offer the same argument, have in mind, it seems, is that both Christian defenders of slavery in the nineteenth century and Christian critics of sodomy today use biblical passages in a literalist manner as 'proof texts' for their views, and that the arguments of the second will someday be seen to have been as indefensible as those of the first. To my mind, however, it is the differences between the nineteenth-century debate over slavery and our debate that are more striking.
Christians who wished to practice or justify slavery in the antebellum American south immediately faced a problem. Sacred Scripture, in its opening passages, teaches that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. All human beings are descended from the same original parents and, as such, are in the most fundamental sense brothers and sisters. Opponents of slavery pressed the point, and pro-slavery Christians had difficulty meeting their argument directly. But an indirect defence was available. The Bible at various points refers to slavery, and even proposes norms pertaining to its practice while not condemning it as unjust or in any way immoral. So, pro-slavery Christians asserted, those in a position to practice slavery are entitled to choose whether or not to practice it. No one may be forced against his conscience to own slaves, but anyone who chooses to own a slave does not necessarily contravene Christian moral principles by doing so.

Unsound resources

In other words Christians, who were 'pro-choice' on the slavery question (as we might put it), pointed to the absence of a biblical condemnation and to suggestions of the Bible’s tacit approval in order to justify a position very difficult to square with the logical implications of biblical anthropology. (Of course, the fact that the slavery they were defending was a racially based form of chattel slavery made justifying their position even on biblical grounds especially difficult, but lay that aside for now.)
These pro-slavery Christians were wrong. And the practice they were defending was horribly wicked. But it must be conceded that they had available to them scriptural resources for an argument, albeit an unsound and, it is now clear, deeply scandalous one. But these same resources (ever unsound as they were) are not available to those who wish to defend the compatibility of the choice to engage in fornication, adultery, or sodomy with Christian anthropology and moral principles. Unlike slavery, these and other forms of sexual immorality are the subjects of scriptural condemnation, as clear and extensive in the New Testament as in the Old. Moreover, the idea that they may legitimately be chosen has been rejected by the firm and constant teaching of the Church, East and West. This teaching, by its centring on what is involved in and required by the very concept of 'the marital' (both for married and unmarried persons), was and is scripturally grounded in a way that goes far beyond mere 'proof texting.'

Thus, Christians, who today seek to justify deviations from traditional norms of sexual morality, can do no more than attempt to explain away the scriptural condemnations of the conduct they defend. So, for example, some of them attempt to show that the explicit condemnation of homosexual conduct is merely a matter of ritual purity and practice, not the expression of a moral teaching. They cannot say about the morally controversial practices they wish to defend what the pro-slavery Christians could and did say about the morally controversial practice they defended. They cannot claim that the Bible treats it as a normal and accepted social practice and offers no condemnation of it.
These are two differences. There are also similarities. Most notably, like Christian defenders of slavery, Christian defenders of sexual practices condemned by historic Christian teaching seek to show that Christianity is more permissive than their opponents say it is. And, correspondingly, of course, Christian opponents of sodomy, like Christian opponents of slavery, see the Christian ethic as more rigorous by virtue of its excluding certain controversial forms of conduct from the universe of morally available options for choice, despite the fact that some intelligent, well-informed people do not share the conviction that the conduct is wrong.

Unavailable Scripture

The fact that those who argued for a more permissive view of morality in the case of slavery were wrong does not mean that those who today argue for a more permissive view of the morality of sodomy or other controversial forms of sexual conduct cannot be right. Whether they are right or wrong will have to be judged on the quality of the arguments they advance. (For what it is worth, it seems to me that their arguments fail badly.) My point in these comments has been only that they do not have available to them the scriptural resources that were available to, and were exploited by, those who argued that slaveholding was compatible with Christian morality. That, I think, is a striking difference." So writes Robert George.

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