Friday, April 12, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember the publication of a book of theology written by a politician in 1797 that changed the world.

It is the 12th of April 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


It was on this, the 12th of April in 1797, that a book was published that would change the course of the Western World. To modern ears, its title would suggest anything other than a best seller, it was called:

A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Middle and Higher Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity.

You may see modern versions with the much pithier “Real Christianity.”

Stranger still, it was not written by a trained theologian but by a politician- a member of Parliament: William Wilberforce. Let’s take a brief look at the life of this remarkable figure and then look at his text and the effects that it had.

Wilberforce is, to many, a towering figure in the history of civil rights. His name is synonymous with his work ending the slave trade in the UK and for his friendship with the pastor and hymn writer John Newton (a movie about Wilberforce came out in 2006 called Amazing Grace). Wilberforce came from privilege, a family that made its money in maritime trade, and his time in Cambridge was rather pedestrian. He was an 18th-century frat boy who could have left school and gone into the family business if it had not been for a friend made there, the future Prime Minister William Pitt. The two decided to use their abilities and wit to enter politics.

Wilberforce’s life would be forever changed when he took a tour of Europe in 1785 with his friend and former schoolmaster Isaac Milner. Milner was a devoted Christian, but Wilberforce held the standard rationalism of his age, which was a kind of cultural Christianity. He noticed Milner reading Philip Doddridge’s “The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul” and asked about it. Intrigued by Milner’s zeal, Wilberforce called on an old friend back home, John Newton, who was known as a famous penitent Christian by then, for a secret meeting. Wilberforce would be forever changed; a Christian now, he wondered if he should give up politics. Newton advised him to stay in his station and see if he could be of service, now as a Christian, there.

In 1787, Wilberforce had his famous breakthrough when he wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners” 

Note: the “Reformation of Manners” meant a renewal of virtue in society.

After various attempts to effect a vote to abolish the slave trade, he and his colleagues decided to take the issue to the greater public. They did this most successfully in the famous Wedgewood Anti-Slavery medallion featuring a chained slave on his knees with the phrase “Am I Not A Man and a Brother” and with Wilberforce’s book.

On the lead up to publication he was warned by his publisher that a book like this wouldn’t sell. His friends told him the book could ruin his reputation. There was an uneasy alliance between the upper classes and the church- a kind of detente where instead of substantive Christianity a polite and meek religion that wasn’t bothersome could remain established.

Within just a few days, 500 copies sold- a remarkable number, but then, within six months, 7,500 copies had been sold. By the time of Wilberforce’s death, it had gone through 15 editions in the UK and 25 editions in the United States. It would be translated into many languages and was credited with turning popular opinion against slavery and in turning many to wonder how a full-throated faith might help society. And it wasn’t by building more churches or forcing doctrinal tests on candidates. Rather, Wilberforce wrote that true faith sees the depth of sin more clearly and finds its remedy in Christ. Then, through the working of the Holy Spirit, we begin to look for the better interests of our neighbors, including the enslaved. He argued that a “moral” Christianity is of no use for society unless there is a doctrinally sound and devout core- without that, he wrote, “the moral system itself also, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment, began to wither and decay.”

We should note that the book had a compelling message, but even amongst the many who didn’t read it,  perhaps bought it as it became fashionable (it happened then as it does now), noticed a changing tide, and were more likely to go with the flow.  From the days when Wilberforce could not get a vote to abolish it, he went to an almost unanimous vote. Change takes time, however, and Wilberforce would die before the complete abolition of the slave trade in 1833, decades before it took bloodshed to be effected in America. Wilberforce’s unlikely best-seller helped the British cause: “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity,” published on this day in 1797.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary from 1 John 2:

26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. 27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.

28 And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of April 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who would accept a “reformation of manners” if it meant he could eat his salad with any fork he wanted to without scorn. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who has written his own manifesto for reforming manners at Costco, whereby we all move through the store in the same direction and don’t stop our carts in the middle of aisles. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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