Wilberforce
Wilberforce

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Wilberforce

6 Conclusion

William Wilberforce died on 29 July 1833, two days after hearing that the legislation for the abolition of slavery in British dominions had successfully completed its passage through the House of Commons, a fitting conclusion to the work he had begun nearly half a century before.

The Practical View both reflected and contributed to a major shift in religious consciousness of which the continuing growth of the Evangelical movement was the most striking manifestation. Methodist numbers may again be taken as an indicator. These showed a further steep increase in membership in England from 91,825 in 1801 to 143,311 in 1811, 215,466 in 1821 and 288,182 in 1830, which amounted to 3.4 per cent of the total adult population. The upward trend continued in the 1830s and 1840s. These numbers may still seem relatively small in relation to the population as a whole, which was also rapidly increasing, but they represented only the committed core and Sunday attendances would certainly have been considerably higher. In the meantime, not least because of the enhanced respectability conferred by Wilberforce and his associates, Evangelicals within the Church of England became increasingly socially acceptable, and even fashionable, and their numbers also grew substantially. There are indeed grounds for seeing the impact of the Practical View and the wider advance of Evangelical ideology as a key strand in the process by which during the early nineteenth century an emergent middle class defined its identity against the perceived irreligion and lax morality of the aristocracy.

Such religious revival and reorientation fitted into a wider North Atlantic and European pattern. In America Evangelicalism grew even more rapidly than in Britain and was, if anything, even more influential in shaping cultural and social outlooks. On the Continent the years after 1815 saw a recovery in the fortunes of the Roman Catholic Church, notably in France where there was a strong reaction against the irreligion of the revolutionary years. Such trends had their own dynamics, but insofar as they represented a recovered sense of historic identity and a deeper awareness of emotion, the supernatural, and the sharp polarities of good and evil, sin and salvation, they are linked to the overall cultural shift to Romanticism.

Wilberforce’s career was also of pivotal significance in terms of the relationship between Europe and the wider world. The campaign against slavery was a fundamental challenge to prevalent assumptions that ‘unenlightened’ non-European peoples and resources were merely subordinate and inferior and could be ruthlessly exploited. While the Christianising impulse that drove Wilberforce and the Evangelicals carried its own assumptions of superiority over other religions and cultures, it was at the same time a powerful force for asserting the dignity and worth of every human being, of whatever race.

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