DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Evangelicals and Humanitarianism

Written by: on January 18, 2019

William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833), is well-known in Ohio by the town and Historically Black University named after him.  Although he is known for his humanitarian efforts as an abolitionist, seeking to end slavery in both England and America, outside of this Ohio town, few in America know about his great work.  Both John Wesley and William Wilberforce were known for their philanthropy and anti-slavery efforts as the fruits of Evangelical humanitarianism in the late 1700s through the early 1800s (Bebbington 2002, p. 69-71).  However in both England and the American South, there were many Evangelicals that supported and defended the institution of slavery.  Wilberforce and other Evangelicals were dedicated to the eradication of slavery and found that the prejudices concerning the Negros served as the moral and intellectual bulwark of the system of slavery (Baker 1970, p. 433).

William Wilberforce saw at the crux of the justification of the slavery issue was the belief in the inferiority of the Negro.  The English believed that the Negro’s black skin was the result of the fable of Noah’s curse on Ham (Baker 1970, p. 433).  The English also believed the behavior of the Negro, which was characterized as thieves and liars, was proof of their corrupt character thereby making them worthy of enslavement.  Wilberforce sought to show any deficiencies of character was the result of suffering the extremes of the middle passage and enslavement (Baker 1970, p. 434-435).

Wilberforce went through great lengths to intellectually dispel the belief of the inferiority of the Negro.  Wilberforce first believed that the transplanted Africans were fully human and were victims of abusive circumstances (Baker 1970, p. 435). He showed that the Africans were no different than natives of any other country by examining the history of the people of Benin and West Africa, studying the customs and handiwork of the pre-enslaved people, finding a civilized and intelligent people (Baker 1970, p. 437).  Wilberforce also examined the behavior of Whites enslaved by Arabs, and found that they also exhibited the same behavior as the enslaved Negro, living in conditions without hope.  Finally, Wilberforce proved that the behavior of the enslaved Africans was a result of the immoral treatment by their captors, and not the result of a curse by the Almighty (Baker 1970, p. 438-439).

Today there are many who believe that people from other countries, such as Guatemala and Mexico, are inhuman and have reprehensible behavior.  They have been labeled as murderers, rapist, and drug dealers.  Unfortunately, in America, there are many Evangelicals who support the inhumane treatment of people of different races and backgrounds.  The solution that is presented is to build a wall to keep out the undesirables from this country. Unfortunately, Evangelicals are seen as anything but humanitarians.  If William Wilberforce is an example of a humanitarian, the Evangelicals of today would do well to follow his example.

I know today, just as in Wilberforce’s day, there are many Evangelicals who do not believe in the prejudices that support the inhumane treatment of any people.  I believe what is needed today are women and men dedicated to the same moral beliefs based on clear Biblical teachings, supported by the intellectual study of the problem of immigration and racial prejudices.  Evangelicals are needed to present Biblical evidence for the humane treatment of all of God’s people, seeking to ask questions about the plight of those fleeing their homelands.  Perhaps if we as Evangelicals work as diligently as William Wilberforce did in his day, an Evangelical would also be known as a humanitarian.


Baker, William. “William Wilberforce on the Idea of Negro Inferiority.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1970: 433-440.

Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge, 2002.

About the Author


Mary Mims

I am a licensed and ordained Baptist minister and have worked with the children and youth for the last seven years. I have resided in the Washington, DC area for the last 30 years, but I am originally from Michigan. I am also bi-vocational and work at the US Patent and Trademark Office in the Scientific Library.

11 responses to “Evangelicals and Humanitarianism”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Such a motivating post! You did an excellent job showing (at least to me) how Wilberforce used research and not just the Bible to show people the truth. I’m sure being in the center of the political landscape of a country brings these to home for you more than most, but the old adage, learn from the past don’t repeat it, bares much witness in your post.

    I believe if we took a snapshot of most Evangelical churches, issues such as these are not talked about much. When we do hear from them it’s always a “hot take” on the news which is usually a negative view. Do you think more churches need to have these hard conversations in order to see change, or do you think it will take an outside voice/move of the Spirit to see change?

  2. mm Mary Mims says:

    Thank you Mario for your feedback. I believe the church, the Evangelical community needs to first look to the Scripture and review what God says about the treatment of the foreigner in Deut. 24:17-18, Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
    Also, it would do well for the Body of Christ to really look at the problem of racial discrimination of both foreigners and African Americans, being honest about the problem and addressing the evil presumptions that are keeping this problem alive. It took so much bravery for Wilberforce, a politician, to address this problem. There is a movie, Amazing Grace about Wilberforce but it really does not do justice to what he did. BTW, one of my brothers graduated from Wilberforce University which is why I know something about him.

  3. Thank you Mary for highlighting how William Wilberforce as an evangelical used research to highlight and fight the evil in his day. As you’ve highlighted about evangelicals who supported slavery, its a reminder to us as leaders, we have to rise above our own selfish interests and champion the humanitarianism as followers of Jesus Christ.

  4. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Amen Mary! Thank you for teaching us about the legacy of William Wilberforce. I assume he would be quite dismayed regarding the current state of our country and how racism is still prevalent.

  5. mm Karen Rouggly says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Mary! Like you, I really appreciate the work of William Wilberforce and wrote a little about him in connection with a paper on Hannah Moore I wrote in my Masters. I agree with your points on American Evangelicals today and that few would be considered “humanitarian” as we know it to be. Bebbington did such a great job in his work regarding the power and place for activism. Is there anyone you can think in American today who might resemble the characteristics of someone like Wilberforce?

  6. mm Sean Dean says:

    We have all heard the quip that you never talk about religion or politics in polite company. I wonder if that is exactly the reason Evangelicals keep falling back into racist tendencies. If your faith has no connection with the outside world and you never talk about it — like seriously talk about it — then it’s pretty easy to allow your personal faith to be corrupted. Men and women of faith who have bucked this trend also dispelled with the beliefs about what to talk about in polite company.

  7. mm John Muhanji says:

    Thank you Mary, for sharing the summary and elaborate history of William Wilberforce and your contrast with John Wesley who were both passionate with humanitarianism. Connecting your brilliant understanding of this with Evangelicalism as described by Bebbington thrills me. You are incredibly great in connecting these together. You have made me understand more on Wilberforce. Thank you Mary for this post.

  8. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent, Mary, thank you. It saddens me to know that evangelicals are not known as humanitarians and I pray that many of us can change that. We should actually be leading the way. It is frustrating to read history and discover the mentality as you describe. I have never been able to understand how we humans justify our horrible treatment of one another especially in the name of God. Studying history through seminary has been enlightening and troubling. Thank you for writing this.

  9. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    One of my favourite books in the Bible is Philemon. I love this snapshot of resistance to the fabric of injustice. A slave who runs away, becomes a Christian, and then has the courage to return to his former master with only a letter and prayer as his shield against imprisonment or even death. My assumption has always been of course that Philemon did in fact receive Onesimus back as a brother as Paul requested. In establishing a brotherhood in place of an owner/slave identity the pair set in motion an example that if replicated could undermine the entire oppressive economic system of their time. I wonder if this isn’t a key to the next incarnation of Wilberforce’s legacy of equality and freedom.

  10. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Your post was powerful, Mary! Sharing the story about William Wilberforce was very interesting. Then, your statement that “today there are many who believe that people from other countries, such as Guatemala and Mexico, are inhuman and have reprehensible behavior” is both true and very sad. I agree that the Evangelicals of today would do well to follow the example of Wilberforce. We have a blind nation right now that needs an awakening!

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