God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle

 Garth Lean, God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle, (Darton, Longman & Todd, London), 2007

If you did not catch up with the focus on William Wilberforce earlier in the year, this is one of the easier ways of doing so. Re-issued to coincide with the celebrations of the Abolition of Slavery and the release of the film Amazing Grace, Lean's biography is a comfortable mixture of information and fluency of style that draws the reader in to this remarkable life without drowning us in detail.

While not a hagiography the book's focus is on how one person's religious convictions can overturn the mindset of an era and bring about lasting social and moral change. In today's Britain much that has traditionally been considered intimate and private is on display for public entertainment, while religious discourse and religiously-inspired convictions are being increasingly excluded and marginalised from polite conversation. This is a delicate area. Both Bush and Blair have appealed to their religious convictions to justify the current war in Iraq, with which many, including the present Pope and his predecessor, disagree vigorously on equally religious grounds. Nevertheless, a book which asks, through the life of one man, how religion can change society on behalf of justice makes an important contribution in a crucial debate.

The table on which Wilberforce wrote the anti-slavery act is now used as a Communion table in Holy Trinity church in Clapham Common, home church to Wilberforce and a group of fellow Parliamentarians and lay people who were abolitionists and reformers because they were Christians. The early part of the book gives a fascinating insight into Wilberforce's personal struggle to accept the implications of conversion in an otherwise frivolously enjoyable and ambitious life. His later struggle to convince Parliament and the country of the need to abolish slavery is conveyed with sympathy and portrays a man utterly dedicated once convinced.

The later part of the biography deals with the less happy aspects of Wilberforce's career in attempting to reform the morals of his time. Contemporary radicals asked why he laboured so strenuously for abolition of slavery overseas while remaining silent on the appalling conditions of workers at home. Reform that looks like political radicalism will sometimes look acceptable to those who have no desire to embrace a more sober personal lifestyle in the name of the Gospel, and many who admired Wilberforce's politics had no wish to follow his moral strictures. He died on the very night that the House of Commons passed the clause of the Act of Emancipation.

Wilberforce's life is proof, if we needed it, that one person can shape the thinking of an age and alter events to the good. This reflective and compassionate book reminds us in an age made cynical by sleaze and spin how much of a contribution to the common good can be made by those who do politics with integrity and faith.

first posted LONDON - 25 June 2007 - 493 words

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