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4.3 Religion and political stability

Wilberforce’s whole approach is strong indirect testimony to the predominance among his contemporaries of the kinds of religious outlook he is criticising, although objective evaluation requires a detachment from his own Evangelical zeal. Certainly his portrayal of the dominant tone of late eighteenth-century Christianity as one of undemanding endorsement of social harmony, decency and good neighbourliness rings true. A leading theological influence was that of William Paley (1743–1805) who, in his View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), argued that the initial revelation of Christianity in the New Testament was associated with exceptional miraculous divine interventions in the natural order. These, however, did not recur in later ages or at the present time. It followed that contemporary Christianity would be orderly and predictable. Paley was also in tune with Enlightenment thought in emphasising the benevolence of God rather than divine judgement, and his scheme of belief had little place for the original sin that was fundamental to that of Wilberforce and the Evangelicals. Such theology gave rise to the approach of the ‘modern Religionists’ whom Wilberforce disliked. It was reflected in the easygoing religion evoked, for example, in the novels of Jane Austen, where clergy are portrayed as endorsing and conforming to the mores of the secular gentry (Figure 6). Nevertheless, Wilberforce was unduly dismissive of the piety of some of his Anglican contemporaries: there were indications of devotion and commitment in the late eighteenth-century Church of England that owed little to the Evangelical movement. Also, Methodism was growing strongly, although primarily among the lower classes who were outside the immediate scope of Wilberforce’s book.

Figure 6
Figure 6 Richard Newton, Fast Day, 1793, engraving, 23.5 × 33 cm., British Museum, London. Photo: by courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

The cultural and political climate of the 1790s provided receptive soil for Wilberforce’s message. By 1797 even erstwhile enthusiasts for revolution would have had ample opportunity in the light of unfolding events in France to reflect on the extent of human ‘corruption’. While Wilberforce’s emphasis was thus a reiteration of a longstanding strand in Christian tradition, it also reflected the mood of the times, and a growing Romantic consciousness of the anarchic and violent potentialities of humanity. There was an increasing number of religious thinkers who took a more radical approach than Wilberforce did, believing that the current disordered state of the world presaged the apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ. Such ideas were apparent in the visionary poetry and paintings of William Blake and in the preaching of popular prophets such as Joanna Southcott, who claimed prophetic revelations from God and believed herself to be pregnant with a child destined to be the new Messiah. By the 1820s such an outlook was gaining ground among Evangelicals. Here religion both reflected and reinforced the trend to Romanticism.