Tuesday, February 13, 2007

"Amazing Grace"-- The Story of William Wilberforce

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.


Kenneth Sheppard said...

Do those social implication include the fact that Wilberforce was deeply conservative and hierarchical in his social outlook, and arguably looked upon slavery as a means to an end - namely, the reformation of manners and the reconstitution of the British Empire? This, at least, is the argument of American historian Christopher Brown's book, *Moral Capital*. While I haven't seen the movie, I dread the now ubiquitous use Wilberforce is going to be made by Evangelical pastors - as if he wasn't used enough already. As I've posted personally, I think this kind of movie needs to be supplemented by the reality of critical historical information, so that Christians don't fall into the hagiographic trap of mythologizing figures of their past. And it seems to me there are already enough Christian myths to go around, with even more troubling implications.

Andy Rowell said...

Thanks for your endorsement Ben. It is fun to hear from a theologian/biblical scholar on his take early. Knsheppard's comment is also a good one I think.

Andy Rowell
Taylor University
Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

Ben Witherington said...

Brother Shepherd:

I must confess that I am very unpersuaded by Christopher Brown's argument on this point. I would urge you to read the new book just out with Harper Collins by Metaxa on Wilberforce. I do not think that Wilberforce could ever be accused of seeing opposition to slavery as a mere means to an end. This would be quite unfair as Wilberforce was more deeply convicted on the issue than, say, Abraham Lincoln who famously once said that he would have taken a pass on abolition if that's what it would take to preserve the Union!

Wilberforce was even in danger of being charged with sedition during the French revolution for sticking to his guns on the slavery issue. In addition, "the Reform of Manners" was an 18th century buzz phrase for moral reform involving issues like child labor, public schools, exchanging 'small beer' for 'spiritous liquors'in the taverns, all of which causes Wesley had already made a start in addressing with his orphanages and the like.

It is of course true that Wilberforce was hierarchial in his approach to government, as was Wesley. But Wilberforce was, and was treated in Parliament as a commoner. He was certainly not one who merely advocated 'noblesse oblige'. So it is quite unnecessary to accuse this movie of being guilty of over gilding the lilly or rank hagiography.

I am all for critical historiography, but not from a jaundiced historian who apparently doesn't know the difference between critical historiography and just skepticism and suspicion.


Ben W.

Kenneth Sheppard said...

Dr Witherington,

Does attacking Brown's work as that of a "jaundiced" historian, ad hominem I might add, somehow call into doubt his argument? You'd have to take issue with his method and his material before I'd be convinced otherwise. Furthermore, I didn't say it was a *mere* means to an end. To imply that taking something as a means makes it somehow less valuable or real is only persuasive if you judge altruism by some sort of Kantian moral standard. At any rate, my comment was directed more at what Evangelicals often do with these kinds of movies, more than a defense of what I take to be Brown's excellent (though obviously not flawless!) book.

As an aside: In what sense was Wilberforce a commoner? Because he belonged to the House of Commons? He was after all a gentleman merchant who owned land (at least according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), which puts him on the social scale far above the commoner/average Briton. I'm not really sure what him being 'common' is supposed to be doing in terms of his altruism. Are they supposed to be related?

And I've yet to see the movie, which may significantly alter my opinion. But I've been in enough evangelical churches around this continent to recount the number of times Wilberforce and Wesley are uncritically lauded in sermons. After all, the Bible presents many figures in moments of triumph and failure. Can't we do this with our heritage as well? Wouldn't it be a worthwhile reminder, to go alongside a movie like this? This is, I suppose, what I really meant to be getting at.

"Nick" said...

The book referenced by Dr. Witherington on Wilberforce is officially titled "Amazing Grace:William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery" and is by Eric Metaxas.

For the record.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Brother Sheppard I seem to have misunderstood your thrust so I apologize. You are of course right that idol worship in the Evangelical Church can be an issue. Wilberforce, like Wesley was not a 'lord' nor related to nobility. The basic social distinction in that culture was between commoners and lords of the realm. Now of course commoner could do well for themselves economically but they could never be lords, unless knighted for something. The stratification of that society is hard for us to really grasp, but that was the basic distinction.



John David Walt said...

ben-- thanks for the good press on amazing grace. glad to get to see the movie with you.

Kenneth Sheppard said...

Dr Witherington,

By no means was there need to apologize. I wanted to engage with you a bit on this because I recognize that you think these things through as a Christian scholar. (I attempted to send an email through your website but it bounced?)

I agree, British society was stratified. But my point was that even the Commons was still occupied by the highest ranking or most wealthy of British society, so that MPs of both houses had more in common than not. Many MPs who were landed gentlemen sat in the Commons, including virtually all the 'prime ministers' of the period like William Pitt (eventually Lord Chattham). I'm still a little unclear why Wilberforce being a commoner would be particularly relevant?

JD Walters,

I'd like to think I can read, thanks. Dr Witherington pointed to other information about Wilberforce relevant to any consideration, yes, but did not really engage with the substance of the historian he subsequently refuted. That may of course be my own fault by reducing Brown's work to one sentence, which obviously does a 450 page book an injustice.

I'd also like to think I'm sincere, thanks. To suggest that Wilberforce saw abolitionism as a means to a larger end does not necessarily commit one to denying his altruism per se. That's just a matter of basic logic, dispute it if you wish.

James Garth said...

We need more genuine heroes like Wilberforce and Wesley... rare men of conscience who found a way to work within the institutions of their day to translate Christian ideals into practical and beneficial social action. We're indebted to them.

Marcia said...

Thanks for this thorough review, and for the quality of your blog in general. I visit from time to time and have been educated as a result.

Shawna Atteberry said...

Dr. Witherington, your article about Bruce Metzger on CT was wonderful. I am a Greek geek who will always be indebted to the work he did. I wish I could have met him. Thank you for sharing your memories.

Ben Witherington said...

You are welcome Shawna, and I will share one more. My college Bible prof, Bernard Boyd was in seminary with Bruce Metzger in 1938 taking the same Hebrew class. He said it was like men among boys. Metzger whizzed through all those languages with his photographic memory, while everyone else struggled.....

Terry Hamblin said...


The Wilberforce who opposed Huxley was a much later man, 'Soapy' Sam Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. There is a lot of mythology and propaganda surrounding that encounter too, but that is another story.

The idea that William Wiberforce has something to apologise for because he was a member of the landed gentry seems to me bizarre. On that reckoning most of the leaders of the American Revolution were similarly tarred.

In the 18th Century only landowners could become Members of Parliament. Many of the social reformers of that time were enobled; think of Lord Shaftesbury and the Countess of Huntingdon. They, nevertheless, began a great work of reform that, far more than either the French or American revolutions, changed civilization for the better.

I am astonished that Wilberforce is not better known in America. I can only imagine it is because America at the time was so committed to slavery, the very cause he opposed so strongly.

Don Yeager said...

I enjoy your blog very much.
I heard you speak about James and the ossuary a while back at Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas.

One slight correction: I believe Wesley called slavery that "execrable" sum of villainies, not "inexorable." I'm looking forward to seeing "Amazing Grace."

Chris Brown said...

This is the 'jaundiced historian' in reply.

The pertinent passage from Moral Capital reads as follows:

"Abolition of the slave trade for the Evangelicals always was an end in itself, never merely an instrument. Their horror at the trafficking and enslavement of human bodies was genuine. Yet what gave the issue particular importance to the Evangelicals, what accounts for the peculiar energy they invested in the campaign, were the edifying habits that might follow from righteous labor, the moral lessons they hoped men and women would draw from fighting public sins. The Evangelicals' turn against the slave trade was not simply an eruption of benevolence. It was also a considered, strategic choice, an opening salvo in a wider campaign against nominal Christianity that they advanced at once on several fronts." (pages, 388-389).

I'll be happy to be proven wrong, of course, but that will require evidence and argument, not assertion and assumption.

Unknown said...

Might I recommend another book on this subject by Adam Hochschild at Berkeley entitled "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves" (2005).

Looking forward to taking leaders in our church to this film and discussing Biblical perspectives on justice, politics, and faith.

Thanks for the post.

Philip G said...


I've just discovered your blog site and have enjoyed a number of your articles. I have been reading Hindmarsh's excellent book on John Newton, who advised Wilberforce during his time in London. Hindmarsh does say that he doesn't spend much time on Newton's involvement in the abolition movement, but refers readers to Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition (London 1975) for more detail. I don't know about Wilberforce's motives, but it seems clear from Newton's writings that later in life he felt personally ashamed of his earlier role as a slave trader and that his opposition to it was on theological grounds.

Thanks for the review: I'm looking forward to seeing the film.
Philip Gardiner

Laura said...

Have any of you read Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild? I thought it was a pretty balanced view of Wilberforce being a faithful Christian but still a product of his culture, a history-changing crusader, but not the only one (Clark especially) leading the charge for abolition of the slave trade. I wish the stories of these brave Christians and others were more popular.

thomas spande said...

Recently I saw and enjoyed both "Amazing Grace" and "Armistad" and would give both 5 stars. Both show how economics were entertwined with morality. The former showed how Pitt and Wilberforce shrewdly passed an apparently "anti-French" law allowing English privateers to attack vessels (mainly American, probably) flying the French flag as one of convenience and this caught up English slavers also in the net, so that by the time the H of C votes, slavery is already a money loser and all MPs could feel virtuous about voting to abolish it. In the US, despite some state constitutions (like GA. set up as a British colony) forbidding slavery, the cotton gin of Eli Witney made cotton a profitable crop for the Southern US but only if slave labor were used, so the prohibition of slavery laws were ignored. The English continued to buy cotton big time from the US, even to the point of funding the Confederacy with cotton bonds. Only Prince Albert prevented the Brits from interevening in the Civil War on the side of the South. So economics still trumped morality if it involved big bucks for the Brits, just that slavery was by then someone else's problem. When the South lost, England's cotton mills turned to India and Egypt for raw material. The cotton bonds were worthless. Thomas Spande, Bethesda, MD

ps. The American Navy had active patrols off the coast of Africa long before the Civil War broke out (e.g. the Constellation was one, commissioned in 1858)to intercept slavers still trading with the Caribbean.