The film Amazing Grace–or at least the life of William Wilberforce–highlights something that most people have forgotten: many of the "social justice movements" had their roots in the evangelical Christianity that emerged towards the end of the "Age of Reason," and specifically Wesleyan Methodism. (The French proved that the "reasonable" didn’t need any help from John Wesley or anybody else to end the Age of Reason.) Today social justice movements aren’t what they used to be, and a large part of the problem is that the secularists which dominate them now have no objective basis in fact to be interested in social justice, a result that speaks for itself in places like, say, the Anglican Communion.
The film also highlights something else: the United Kingdom managed to abolish slavery with one act of Parliament. The United States, that "shining city on a hill," put itself through a civil war to get the same result. Why was this? Let’s centre our discussion around the two things they had in common.
The first is that evangelical Christians were instrumental in both abolitions. In the U.S., the "revival" (singular) that burst forth at the beginning of the nineteenth century made abolition a cause célèbre as much as its UK counterpart. Preachers such as Charles Finney relentlessly kept the evils of slavery in front of their audiences, and the audiences in turn responded. Evangelicals in those days were unafraid of putting social value into the gospel they preached, as opposed to those after the First World War (which made social value problematic for everyone.)
However, the reaction they got illustrated the key difference between the UK and the US. Slavery in the British Empire was something that took place away from the mother country, in the colonies, making it a lot easier to accomplish. In the U.S.–until recently a set of colonies itself–slavery was home-grown, so much so that the end of importing slaves didn’t brake the growth of the institution, as it would have done in a harsher environment such as Brazil. Making matters worse was that the region which practiced slavery was full of people whose ancestors didn’t come to the New World to do the work, but to be free and let someone else do the work.
The immediate result of this was that the "revival" that swept the Northern states in the first half of the nineteenth century never reached the Southern ones, shifting from places such as Cane Ridge, Kentucky to upstate New York. The South remained the "Booze Belt;" the "Bible Belt" is a result of what followed, namely the Civil War.
And that leads us to the second similarity: both acts of national righteousness were enforced by the power of the state. In the case of the British Empire, it was in the normal course of law enforcement. In the U.S., it took Mr. Lincoln’s Army to get the job done.
In an earlier piece entitled The Army of Joshua, we contended that, in order to make the Ten Commandments the law of the land, it would take an act of military force, as it had done in ancient Israel. This is a shocking result, but what’s even more shocking is that, for revivalists of yore, the Army of Joshua was in fact the same army that suffers IED’s in Iraq, and that did Clinton’s will in places such as Bosnia and Kossovo. Half-cocked militia groups won’t get the job done; not even the Confederate army could resist.
But there was a downside to all of this. Finney expressed the following in advance of the great conflagration:
I believe the time has come–although I am no prophet, I believe it will be found to have come, that the revival in the United States will prevail no further and no faster than the Church takes the right ground on this subject (slavery)…
What is the condition of the nation? No doubt God is holding the rod of WAR over the heads of this nation. He is waiting, before he lets loose his judgments, to see whether the Church will do right. The nation IS under His displeasure, because the Church has acted in such a manner with respect to revivals. And now suppose war should come, where would be our revivals? How quickly would war swallow up the revival spirit. The spirit of war is anything but the spirit of revival. (Revivals of Religion, pp. 315-6, 321)
What Wilberforce did for the slaves was right and needed to be done. But the American experience is a cautionary note for all those who make "bringing the nation back to God" their top priority, along with the social causes of abortion, etc. In Finney’s day the Civil War–which accomplished a major objective of the revival–stopped same revival in its tracks, as Finney predicted it would. The use of the power of the state to accomplish the will of God had a backwash that we still feel today.