William Wilberforce and ‘the Saints’
in Making and remaking saints in nineteenth-century Britain
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Historians have frequently noted the twin propensities of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century evangelicals for writing hagiographical and historical narratives. This chapter argues that the interaction of these traditions led to the emergence of a new, distinctively evangelical form of hagiography: that of the ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ saint. This chapter moves beyond the well-worn territory of filial piety to consider how the Clapham ‘saints’ came to be regarded as such. Exploring parallel shifts in the evangelical historiographical tradition and in published funeral sermons, it outlines a set of changing ideals, from the ‘pious philanthropy’ of the 1780s through the middle ground of ‘moral celebrity’ to posthumous ‘practical sainthood’ by the 1830s and 40s. New definitions of sanctity gave rise to new narratives of mediation. The ‘practical saint’ represented the Gospel’s immanent improving power as an historical force, differentiated from the eighteenth-century emphasis on unchanging doctrine. He or she mediated between Providence and the nation, between the domestic and the global, and between industrialising mass society and the individual worker in piety. As Sir James Stephen wrote, concluding his ‘ecclesiastical biography’ of William Wilberforce, recording such a life was an exercise in ‘mémoires pour servir, in the composition of an historical picture – an intertwining of hagiography and historiography.

Editor: Gareth Atkins

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