William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Recommended Resources

HISTORY, like everything else, has become multimedia. When it comes to learning about the past, books are still the main course, but increasingly there are a variety of dishes upon which history is served. Beginning with this issue, we’re going to make an even greater effort to make readers aware of the best books, movies, recordings, CDs, and Web sites related to the topic. Here’s what we've come up with on Wilberforce and British social reform.

On and by Wilberforce

You’d expect a man as great as William Wilberforce to generate some fine biographies, and he has. Immediately after his death, two of his sons, Robert Isaac and Samuel, penned The Life of William Wilberforce (1839), which is the source of a great deal of material found in later biographies.

For modern treatments, see John Pollock’s Wilberforce (Lion, 1977) for a full account, or Garth Lean’s God’s Politician (Helmers & Howard, 1987) for a quick read. In editing the issue, we found Sir Reginald Coupland’s Wilberforce (Collins, 1945) a nice balance of engaging prose and good scholarship.

Wilberforce’s best seller is a long book with a long title. The SCM 1958 version retained the title—A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity—but has given us only the best of the wordy Wilberforce.

On slavery

Local libraries carry a fair share of books on slavery. One we found particularly helpful, especially for the gripping images it contains, is Susanne Everett’s The Slaves: An Illustrated History of the Monstrous Evil (Putnam, 1978).

A thorough and fascinating account of the slave trade can be found in Roger Anstey’s The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition: 1760–1810 (Macmillan, 1975).

Other reforms and reformers

Wilberforce, of course, was but the most famous social reformer, and abolition, only the most famous cause of the 1800s. To gain an appreciation of the breadth of concern and the major Christian social activists of the era, note these books:

Saints in Politics by Ernest Howse (University of Toronto Press, 1952) and Saints and Society by Earle Cairns (Moody, 1960) give nice overviews of the Clapham Sect and other Christian social reformers. Evangelical Faith and Public Zeal: Evangelicals and Society in Britain 1780–1980 edited by John Wolffe (SPCK, 1995) contains essays that explore various causes to which evangelicals gave themselves.

To narrow to one concern, the inner city, see Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865–1920 by Norris Magnuson (Baker, 1977) and Lighten Their Darkness: The Evangelical Mission to Working-class London, 1828–1860 by Donald M. Lewis for two careful and intriguing studies.

Again, most local libraries carry biographies of the more famous reformers of 1800s England, like Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry—though such books often ignore the importance of their spiritual commitment. Two biographies that do not downplay the role of Christian faith are David W. Bebbington’s William Ewart Gladstone: Faith & Politics in Victorian Britain (Eerdmans, 1993) and Georgina Battiscombe’s Shaftesbury: A Biography of the Seventh Earl, 1801—1885 (PBS, 1974).

Fiction

Probably no writer did a better job of evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of London, and the customs of his day, than did Charles Dickens. Take up and read David Copperfield, Hard Times, Oliver Twist, or even A Christmas Carol to do some “serious” historical background research.

Films and Videos

Film versions of any of the Dickens books are another way of exploring this era. Also see William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a 35-minute video produced by Gateway Films (1-800-523-0226), which comes with a leader’s guide for group discussion.

Issues of Christian History

This isn’t the first time we've covered this era. See our issue on William and Catherine Booth (Issue 26), founders of the Salvation Army, for an in-depth look at the most famous inner-city ministry in Victorian England.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Issue 29) looks at the greatest preacher of the era. William Carey (Issue 36), Hudson Taylor (Issue 52), and David Livingstone (forthcoming: fall 1997) look at three famous missionaries who grew up in industrial Britain and took advantage of its colonial reach to spread the gospel across the world.

Issues 1 through 51 are available now on CD-ROM for easy researching. See the ad on page 48 for more information.

Online and the Web

Christian History has a site on America Online (keyword: Christian History) where some past issues of the magazine can be found. In addition, there are dozens of message boards on a variety of topics where one can read and post messages to other church history fans. One message board, for instance, is designed to discuss the current issue on Wilberforce and the Century of Reform.

There is also a link to the Gateway Films site, which specializes in church history films (like the Wilberforce film mentioned above).

We now have a page on the world wide web. Go to this address: www.ChristianityToday.com/christianhistory

From there you can scan a number of church history related sites. For example, some have early church documents online; others have pictures and articles about early American Methodism; and others contain key texts from the Middle Ages. And on it goes.

You can search for other church history web pages on a topic of your choice from within the Christian History area or through more generic search engines, like Yahoo! or Alta Vista.

For example, entering “William Wilberforce” in Yahoo!, we found a site that has a letter John Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce six days before Wesley died, encouraging Wilberforce to continue in his abolitionist efforts. Look it up athttp://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/ and scroll to document X0554 and click.

Wilberforce and his Clapham friends used the cutting-edge media of their day to make history. There is no reason we shouldn’t use all the media of our day to learn about that history.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #53 in 1997]

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