Sometimes the Media gets it exactly right. In this case I am referring to Walden Media and Bristol Films. The former of these two names will be known to all movie buffs as the folks who gave us the first episode of the Chronicles of Narnia on film. Well Walden Media, while not a Christian company, is committed to quality films, including films that may well have a Christian message. Such a film is "Amazing Grace". I will tell you now it is one of the better films of historical interest that I have ever seen--- beautiful cinematography, powerful acting, carefully hewn plot line and scene development-- just right. While superficial comparisons could be made with Steven Spielberg's 'Amistad' of some years ago, this is a far more compelling story as it explains the philosophical and theological roots of the abolitionist movement in England.
The one acting name you will certainly recognize in this movie is Albert Finney who plays that former captain of slave ships turned Christian minister, John Newton. Newton is the minister who gave us several of our greatest hymns including of course 'Amazing Grace'. This film however does not focus on Newton, a great man in his own right, but rather on someone he helped mentor along the way-- a politician named William Wilberforce, the greatest reformer of his age, indeed of many an age, who for the sake of God and country pursued the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.
One of the most poignant and telling aspects of this fine movie is the portrayal of the great friendship between William Pitt and William Wilberforce-- both remarkable men, who at remarkably young ages became prominent politicians in Parliament, and Pitt was to become the one of the youngest prime ministers ever. The movie shows how these men, living between the American revolution and the French revolution, managed to persist and persist and persist until they found a way to abolish the slave trade. One might almost say that it would have been better if the American Revolution had come after Wilberforce, and then we would not have had the horrible continuation of slavery for a further half century in America leading to the American Civil War. But I digress.
'Amazing Grace' picks up the story of William Wilberforce's life as a young man and gives us the full story up to and slightly beyond the day the abolition bill finally passed in Parliament by a huge majority.
What one needs to know about Wilberforce is that it might never have happened because Wilberforce was torn between becoming a Christian minister and being a politician. He had a renaissance of his faith or a conversion experience in 1785. Interestingly it was the abolitionist Christian group called the Clapham sect (mostly composed of Quakers and Methodists) who told Wilberforce that he could both serve the Lord and serve his country best by being a dynamic force in Parliament working for the social Gospel and social change. His friend William Pitt also helped to persuade him to the same end.
The role of men like John Wesley who had been an abolitionist before Wilberforce is crucial because Wesley had demonstrated that such a view was not only consistent with the Gospel, rightly understood, but was a natural implication of the fact that we are all one in Christ, and Christ has called us to freedom, for in him "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free.." It was Wesley who insisted there was no spiritual Gospel without the social Gospel and vice versa. Wilberforce's Aunt Hannah was much enamoured with George Whitefield, that other famous Methodist, and she influenced Wilberforce in the direction of Methodism. Methodists will remember that one of the last letters John Wesley ever wrote before he died in 1791 was to William Wilberforce imploring him to continue his work for the abolition of what Wesley called "the inexorable sum of all villianies-- slavery."
To understand what a struggle was involved, one needs to bear in mind that Wilberforce first introduced the subject of abolition in Parliament in 1789, while John Wesley was still alive and Wesley applauded the move. Wilberforce then knew there was precedent for his views on the part of previous reformers, and he pursued the matter relentlessly and at the cost of his health. But alas, it was not until 1807 that he and others finally got the bill passed-- some 18 years later. The movie basically stops at this juncture, but in fact Wilberforce did many other remarkable things. For one thing he continued to work right up to his death for the abolition of all slavery everywhere else in the Empire, not just in England.
William Wilberforce was a gentle soul who began the RSPCA-- the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He also helped in the founding of schools in Wimbledon, yes that Wimbledon, where even the poor could attend. He managed to get written into the chart of the East Indies Trading Company the right of missionary to also go to India. In short, he paved the way for Christian missionary work in India, but also in West African countries such as Sierra Leone. So great an impact did Wilberforce make that a town in Ohio was named after the man and then a black college was founded in that town named after the man as well-- today called Wilberforce University. It became the very first such university in American to be owned by African Americans.
"Amazing Grace" is a wonderful, poignant and compelling story of how to live out the social implications of one's faith. It reaches the theaters on Feb. 23rd of this month, the 200th anniversary of the date when the abolition act first passed the vote of Parliament. I would urge every Christian to see this movie, take their families, take their youth groups, take their churches to see it. We need to support this sort of high quality cinema which supports Christian values. I hope we will do so. In doing so we will be serving the One who called us to social justice and ministries of compassion saying "in as much as you have not done it unto the least of these, you have not done it unto me." Lastly I must say that I am very proud of our sister institution-- Asbury College, for their help on this film. The RTV/Communications Department of the College produced the promo DVD being sent out to thousands of churches in the run up to the premiere.