[Part Five of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]

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Wilberforce's sons believed their father's calling was to bring to the upper classes the message that Wesley had brought to the lower--to "raise his voice in the high places of the land; and do within the church, and near the throne, what Wesley had accomplished in the meeting, and amongst the multitude." They quote Wilberforce's own understanding of his mission: "God has set before me as my object the reformation of [my country's] manners" [Wilberforce, Life of Wilberforce, 1:130]. For something like a half-century, until its character changed in the 1830s, this was a movement whose outlook encompassed both a soul and a body; that is, it was animated by the conviction that a connection existed between the inward spiritual state and the outward activity and that conseqently its responsibility lay in both spheres. The Evangelicals implicitly, sometimes explicitly, repudiated both a pietism that denied the importance of the physical and societal and a moralism that behaved as if that were all there was. Their most prominent center of influence was a London suburb called Clapham, where a number of them lived, and so their enemies called them the "Clapham Sect." The group's best-known members, who were in the parliament, were derided as "the Saints." In addition to Clapham there was an important group at Cambridge under the leadership of Isaac Milner and Charles Simeon. And near Bristol lived the most prolific writer among the Evangelicals, Hannah More. As a young woman from the provinces, she had made a brilliant entry into London intellectual society. Samuel Johnson is said to have regarded her as the finest woman poet writing in the English language, and they became close friends. She was also very close to the most famous actor in England, David Garrick, and Garrick's wife. These Evangelicals, only the most prominent of an increasingly numerous and influential part of the church, remained true to their Anglican roots, although for many years its members had close relationships with dissenters, so that they sometimes faced taunts about being Methodists.

From their various centers the Evangelicals worked to restore the church and the country to a semblance of a morality in keeping with the standards appropriate to a renewed national church. This attempt was concerted and public enough to lead a modern historian to call them the "storm troopers of Christian decency" [Foster, An Errand of Mercy, 30]. The criticism, then and now, was that these middle and upper class people were anxious to curtail the vices, usually harmless, of the poor--Sunday games, cock fights and other animal sports and the like--while allowing the upper classes to do as they pleased. [That is the position, for example, of J.L. and Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer, 216.] This accusation is without foundation. Wilberforce's book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, published in 1797 and running to many editions (to the shock of his publisher, who assumed that five hundred copies of an anonymous edition would be sufficient), was specifically directed toward bringing the belief and morality of the upper classes into conformity with their profession of faith. When Thomas Chalmers, who later became Scotland's most famous minister, read this book, he was galvanized into an active ministry that encompassed the search for both evangelical conversion2 and a dynamic church ministry to lift poor people out of a life of dependence; he did this by devising a church-based system of social welfare very different from that which prevailed [Thomas Chalmers, 55f.]. His modern biographer views Chalmers's mission as a "struggle to realize an ideal Christian society." [xv.]

Hannah More's even more focused book, the pointedly titled Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society, argued that the national public morality would remain in the pits until there was a true reformation of morality among the rich and powerful:

Reformation must begin with the GREAT, or it will never be effectual. Their example is the fountain whence the vulgar draw their habits, actions, and characters. To expect to reform the poor while the opulent are corrupt, is to throw odours into the stream while the springs are poisoned. [78]

With her sister Martha, Hannah More started an undertaking to bring education and health to poor people in a backward rural region against the opposition of almost everyone of means and reputation. This project had its beginnings when Wilberforce and his sister visited the More sisters and at their urging went for a drive to visit the cliffs of Cheddar. When they returned Wilberforce looked shaken, and the More sisters noticed that the lunch of cold chicken and wine with they they provided him was untouched. Later he came down from his room and related his surprise and dismay at seeing the brutal and lawless state of life in the surrounding villages. He urged the sisters to set their hands to work as a matter of Christian charity. "If you will be at the trouble, I will be at the expense." For many years thereafter Wilberforce's money and that of friends went into the work, and the sisters devoted the rest of their lives to establishing schools, religious services, women's clubs, and some semblance of economic activity. Wilberforce even made provision in his will so that in the event of his early death the work would not grind to a halt. [The best source for this effort is the memoirs of Martha More, Mendip Annals. Of special interest in this book are the accounts of opposition to their work from pillars of the community who thought it dangerous or otherwise inappropriate for poor people to learn to read.]

Content last modified 1998