The Reformation of Manners

An Old Project

You might remember a man named William Wilberforce. He was the central character in the 2006 biographical film Amazing Grace. Here is the trailer. The feature is available for rent, streaming on Amazon Prime. I recommend the movie.

Wilberforce is best known as an abolitionist, someone who worked across the span of decades to render the slave trade illegal in his native Britain. But he was also an evangelical Christian, a man of deep conviction who wrote a book known to us today as A Pratical View of Christianity.

They used to slap more descriptive titles on books. The full title of Wilberforce’s book, upon release, was A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Class in This Country, Contrasted With Real Christianity. The full text is online, made available by Project Guttenberg.

While still an important book, I warn you, it won’t carry you along by thrilling your heart. It’s a critique of Wilberforce’s contemporaries, and a presentation of the core convictions and social ethics of Christianity as he understood it. His work is rebuke, exhortation, and correction, as well as an invitation to something greater, truer, and more enduring, an eternal way of living.

Wilberforce has come to my mind this week. He was a reformer that worked over the span of decades, not only weeks or years. His signature accomplishment was legistlative change, which occurred after decades of advocacy and a long campaign of public persuasion involving more than just Wilberforce and other fellow Christians who spoke against abolition.

I’ve thought about Wilberforce because of his understanding of vocation, which he expressed thus: “God Almighty has set before me two Great Objects: the supression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” It is the latter, rather than the former, that has been at the forefront of my mind. What would such a project look like today?

Societies do develop grammars, norms, and scripts, ways of speaking to one another, ways of regard, and standard protocols for human interactions. We develop and adopt manners, formally, yes, but more often informally. Our ways of behaving are more often caught than taught, as the old saying goes.

The Christian tradition, as diverse and varied as its expressions are, especially in a place like the United States, and particularly in a tradition like my own, which splinters over matters as great the sovereignty of God and the freedom of the will and as small as the color of the carpet, does impart to its adherents grammars, norms, and scripts that hold not only within religious communities, but that are then carried forth and applied to interactions in the society at large. Congregations teach not only religious doctrines and transcendent truths, but manners, ways of interacting with other human beings within civil society.

For those among us who are reformation minded, like Wilberforce, we may wish to call out the behavior of others, to name bad manners and bad form wherever we see it. We may wish to take another step, to have courage in naming evil as such, and then to uplift those who do good and do well among as examples of good character and sound leadership. But we’ll also need to teach and train good manners to others right here in our midst, in our families, in our congregations, in workplaces, and in other spheres. Most importantly, we’ll need to model them. Words and deeds should align.

The reformation of manners is an old project. But its still a good one.

Book Notes

I’m still reading Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. I finished C. J. Sansom’s Tombland and loved it. And I’ve begun The Odes of Horace.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace, was a Roman poet who lived from 65 to 8 B.C. He wrote about friendship, love, and beauty, and his odes are filled with references to mythological figures, geographical markers, historical events, and the names of friends, both real and imagined. His verse was composed in Latin. I’m reading a translation by Helen Rowe Henze that was published in 1961.

Molly asked, “Why are you reading that?” My answer: “I want to.” Her next question, “Are you enjoying it?” My answer: “I’m trying to.”

Every now and again we should read something that stretches us, and not only for the acquisition of knowledge, but simply for the pleasure of reading.

I liked this verse in Book I, 9:

Whate’er tomorrow holds, shun to question now,
And what the day will bring, what of chance or gain,
Set down to profit; now in boyhood
Spurn not sweet loves or the youthful dances,

While from your bloom cantankerous age stands off.
Now ‘neath falling dusk, at the trysting hour
Again, again through field and courtyard
Let the soft whispers be still repeated.

Now from a secret corner a teasing laugh
Betrays a hidden girl, from whose slender wrists
A lover’s pledge is snatched away, or
Else from a finger resisting faintly.

Sights and Sounds

This week I watched Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Physical comedy, standard romantic storyline involving the main character and a beautiful and kind love interest, some cool parkour, dumb criminal hijinxs, and unlikely heroics. Detect, deter, observe, and report.

My brother pointed me to Blackberry Smoke, which I think we’ve talked about once before, and I’ve been listening to their 2020 album Live From Capricorn Sound Studios.

Last Words

There are a couple of new posts on the blog: there’s a group in the U. K. that restores old church buildings and Al Franken can draw the U.S. with a sharpie.

Before I go, standard copy.

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Be well this week. Bless others.


P. S. - The snowman above was built by my neighbor and his family. He had already lost some of his glory by the time I took this snap. The photo below was taken on a neighborhood walk. These birds were traveling back and forth to a nearby tree with red berries…I wish I was better at identifying different kinds of trees, and birds for that matter. These little ones had light yellow underbellies.