The Reformation of Manners

William Wilberforce had a more significant impact on culture than only law  Ending the slave trade and ultimately the practice of slavery in the U.K. were more than legislative acts; Wilberforce's goal to was inform and shape the social conscience of his society.  He called this "the reformation of manners."  Changing the law was important and so was changing minds and hearts so that social evils, slavery and much more, were not tolerated, in fact could not be contemplated by good citizens.  He didn't accept the status quo, the evils tolerated by polite society.  He changed the status quo when it seemed impossible. 

Mark Steyn points out that the "Victorian Era" was largely the result of Wilberforce's success and the social conscience of a nation he helped shape.  Steyn writes:

What we think of as "the Victorian era" was, in large part, an invention of Wilberforce that he succeeded in selling to his compatriots. We children of the 20th century mock our 19th century forebears as uptight prudes, moralists and do-gooders. If they were, it's because of Wilberforce. His legacy includes the very notion of a "social conscience": In the 1790s a good man could stroll past an 11-year-old prostitute on a London street without feeling a twinge of disgust or outrage; he accepted her as merely a feature of the landscape, like an ugly hill. By the 1890s, there were still child prostitutes, but there were also charities and improvement societies and orphanages.

"What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery,'' says Eric Metaxas, "something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: He vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning. "

The way Wilberforce used manners is a social sense is new for me - the social conscience.  But I think it is a larger, social application of manners in the more familiar, personal sense.  Good manners are based on the value of other human beings and how we ought to treat people.  I suspect the larger social sense is very related to the smaller personal sense.  How we view the dignity and value of other humans beings should influence the way we treat them in the small ways and the major ways.  There are certainly many social issues where we need to reform our social manners, but somehow I think those are often easier to see.  Maybe because they're so egregious.  I think it's easier to forget how we treat each other in small ways also matters, and probably in no small ways inform our social conscience because it disciplines us to respect the value and dignity of other persons.  It trains us to be other-focused.

Melinda Penner

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