4.6 Contemporary reactions
Wilberforce’s underlying conservative inclinations and his vested interest in the existing social order led him to emphasise those aspects of Christianity that are conducive to stability rather than the more radical strands of Jesus’ teaching. Nevertheless, there is no doubt of Wilberforce’s absolute conviction of the reality of an afterlife and, consequently, of the spiritual perspective in which life as we know it has to be viewed. Herein was an outlook fundamentally different from that of David Hume, whose emphasis on empirical knowledge and scientific method made him sceptical of the claims of religion. Wilberforce’s perspective though was probably much more representative than Hume’s of the consensus of contemporaries. It shows why for social and political reasons, as well as for philosophical and theological ones, any questioning of the immortality of the soul seemed so dangerous and shocking.
The Practical View stirred extensive comment and debate among contemporaries. According to Daniel Wilson it was:
at the same moment, read by all the leading persons of the nation. An electric shock could not be felt more vividly and instantaneously. Every one talked of it, every one was attracted by its eloquence, every one admitted the benevolence and sincerity of the writer.
(Wilson, 1829, op. cit., p. xviii)
The Gentleman’s Magazine (vol.67, part 1, p. 411), which might be regarded as representative of the polite society of ‘professed Christians’ to which Wilberforce addressed himself, ‘sincerely’ wished him success in his labours. The reviewer felt his picture both of contemporary religious practice and of true Christianity was a fair one. The Anglican British Critic (vol.10, pp. 294–303) hailed the Practical View as ‘one of the most impressive books on the subject of religion, that appeared within our memory’. It noted that many people were censuring the book as too severe, but they were merely trying to excuse their own indifference and in doing so confirmed the truth of Wilberforce’s central contentions. It found the Practical View overly sympathetic to Methodism, but readily pardoned this fault as only a slight blemish on an otherwise excellent work. At the same time Dissenters influenced by Evangelicalism warmly welcomed the book’s advocacy of religious convictions and practice with which they identified. The Protestant Dissenters’ Magazine (vol. 4, pp. 196–8) praised the work, trusting that it would ‘meet with more than common attention’, although it was critical of Wilberforce’s diffuse style which was thought to detract from the clarity of the argument, a frustration shared by many later readers.
Individual reactions could be profound. Arthur Young, an eminent pioneer of new methods in agriculture, bought the book and read it ‘coldly at first’. He initially failed to understand the doctrinal points, but read it again and again ‘and it made so much impression on me that I scarcely knew how to lay it aside’. After reading the book for a fourth time within a few months, Young was ready to dismiss criticism of Wilberforce as ‘arrant nonsense’ and wrote that ‘my mind goes with him in every word’ (quoted in M. Betham-Edwards, 1898, The Autobiography of Arthur Young with Selections from his Correspondence, London, Smith, Elder and Co., pp. 287–8, 297). Similarly, when Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), the future social reformer and leader of the Free Church of Scotland, read the book in the winter of 1810–11 it placed him ‘on the eve of a great revolution in all my opinions about Christianity’.
Other commentators, however, thought the book ‘fanatical’ (J. Pollock, 1977, Wilberforce, London, Constable. p. 153). This perspective showed the continued prominence of a strain of Enlightenment thought in which everything must be viewed in the cool light of reason. The Gentleman’s Magazine qualified its positive review by expressing unease lest Wilberforce’s advocacy of emotion in religion should ‘transport warm tempers beyond due bounds, and expose them to temptation and to censure’. The Monthly Review (vol. 23, pp. 241–8) professed itself as much a friend to religion as Wilberforce was, but firmly maintained that ‘in the present day, if its authority be preserved at all, it must not be done by addressing the passions, but by appealing to reason’. The success of Wesley and Whitefield in ‘reforming and civilising’ the poor depended on stirring the ‘passions of the vulgar’ and was no proof of the truth of their teaching. Religious practice was more important than assent to abstract doctrines, which were likely soon to be perceived as erroneous and so to lose their authority. Criticism of this kind, however, had the unintended effect of enhancing the appeal of the Practical View among more orthodox Christians. Meanwhile, Wilberforce was denounced in pamphlets by a couple of Unitarian writers. (Unitarians were Dissenters who professed a strongly Enlightened and rational view of religion, tending to discount the supernatural and to emphasise the unity of God rather than the divinity of Jesus Christ.) One held that his fundamental principles were absolutely incompatible with those of Christ himself (G. Wakefield, 1797, A Letter to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Subject of his Late Publication, London, p. 4), and the other attacked his doctrine as ‘inconsistent with reason, unfounded in Scripture, and injurious to morality’ (T. Belsham, 1798, A Review of Mr Wilberforce’s Treatise, London, J. Johnson, pp. 2–3). Nevertheless, the Duke of Grafton, a former prime minister who was sympathetic to Unitarianism, although thinking that Wilberforce laboured under ‘great but involuntary errors’, praised him as ‘an upright, sincerely pious and beneficent character’ (quoted in Betham-Edwards, 1898, op. cit., pp. 325–6). Such reactions revealed something of the range of contemporary perceptions of what it meant to be genuinely religious amidst the interplay of Enlightenment and Romantic cultural and social expectations.
Now that you have read through some extracts from Wilberforce’s A Practical View, pause for a moment to review your own reactions to the text, and summarise your thoughts on the following questions.
What is distinctive and interesting about the text?
How does it fit into the processes of transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism?
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the text is the evident centrality and sincerity of Wilberforce’s religious mindset and motivation, and his specific commitment to Evangelical Christianity. Moreover, he does not advocate a spiritual withdrawal from the world of mainstream politics and society, but insists that Christians should be fully engaged with it. Despite his evident unease about the current moral and political state of Britain, his religious language is too earnest to be merely a cover for some other underlying motive, such as a conservative political agenda. A text such as this is therefore an important corrective to the impression that this was an era in which religion was generally in retreat in the face of Enlightenment rationality. We need to recognise that the overall picture was a complex and variegated one.
Of course the question is an open-ended one, and other lines of thought could be developed, focusing perhaps on the nature of Wilberforce’s response to the French Revolution, or on his perception of the structure and workings of British society. Such issues are also well worth reflecting on, but it remains important to recognise the pivotal role of religion in A Practical View.
In summary this is very much a text that combines an Enlightenment appeal to structured rationality with a Romantic one to emotion and the supernatural, although the reactions of the contemporary reviewers suggest it was perceived as emphasising the latter more than the former. The ease with which Wilberforce moves from one mindset to another is a useful caution to us against simplistic pigeonholing of people as either ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Romantic’ thinkers. The Practical View also raises for us the question of how important religion itself was as a force that promoted cultural change as well as reflecting it. There are no easy answers to such complex questions, and they are worthy of further reflection.