Amazing Grace: The William Wilberforce Story

wilberforce_large.jpgThe legacy of William Wilberforce is tied to his relationship with John Newton. John Newton, an ex-slave trader turned minister and abolitionist, wrote the lyrics for the hymn “Amazing Grace” and became Wilberforce’s spiritual counselor. He set his young protégé on the path of service to humanity. It was only after Wilberforce underwent what he later described as his “great change” or embrace of Christianity, that he became a reformer. Newton knew this to be true, and invoking the deliverance language of the Old Testament Book of Esther, told Wilberforce that it was “for such a time as this” that he had been placed in a position as a powerful Member of Parliament to secure the abolition of the slave trade. It was in the House of Commons, Newton stated, that Wilberforce could best serve God. – from the “Amazing Grace” website

I waited nearly a year after the release of “Amazing Grace” to watch it – that was back in 2008. This Bristol Bay Production is an extremely well-written and uplifting historical film about one of the greatest post-Reformation heroes in Church history.

Watch it. You’ll be glad you did, and you just might learn enough about British colonial history to impress people at cocktail parties.

The story follows the personal life and career of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a young Christian politician in 18th century England whose lifework was to get the slave trade abolished in Great Britain. He was also a philanthropist. From 131 Christians Everyone Should Know we get a more complete picture of the champion of social justice Wilberforce was: Wilberforce—dubbed “the prime minister of a cabinet of philanthropists”—was at one time active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society. He also supported sending missionaries to India – the more the better. My kind of guy. In 1785, when William was 26, he was born again and began to re-think his political career. He was a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons and a good friend of William Pitt, who became Great Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister at the age of 24.

In a touching scene early in the movie, Wilberforce is shown sprawled in the grass behind his country estate, quietly telling God, “I feel like I need to run away to spend time with you…I’d much rather just sit out here and contemplate a spider’s web [than work in politics] for hours!” When discovered a few minutes later by Richard the Butler, Wilberforce tries to articulate his dilemma, to which the brawny Scotsman blankly replies, “Ye’ve found God, then, Sir?” Still sitting in the grass in his leggings, Wilberforce admits, “More precisely, He’s found me. Do you know how bloody inconvenient that is, Richard?” After a brief philosophical chat, during which Richard reveals that he does more than just dust Wilberforce’s books, the two head inside where we find the dining area over-run with orphans and impoverished beggars whom William routinely feeds.

The inspiration behind Wilberforce’s driving passion was John Newton (Albert Finney), a minister who had once been captain of several slave ships. During a storm, Newton had cried out to God from the deck of his ship and promised to change his ways. He got out of the trade and became a minister so popular that passers-by would sit outside his church’s windows to hear his preaching, but this new life did not relieve him of the demons that haunted him from his past. We see Newton only briefly in the movie, a broken, reclusive man to whom Wilberforce goes for advice. He bemoans the “20,000 ghosts” who still haunt his dreams, and relays to William the horrors of the slave ships. (Before his death, Newton wrote his autobiography “Out of the Depths” which graphically exposes the slave trade.)

Newton wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, which Wilberforce sang aggressively one night in a pub to snub a Duke who offered him his slave to settle a gambling debt. Wilberforce never gambled again, but rather made the acquaintance of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797), a former slave who later served a Quaker merchant and earned his own freedom. Played by French musician Youssou N’Dour, Equiano became a central figure in Britain’s abolitionist movement after he wrote his autobiography and began working to sway public opinion on slavery.

Several other historical abolitionists who encouraged and worked alongside Wilberforce were portrayed in the cast, including the somewhat social-anarchist Thomas Clarkson. In the movie, he and Wilberforce get into an argument over the impending French Revolution (which Clarkson supports), but Wilberforce admonishes him never to talk about revolt ever again in his hearing. Loyal to the crown until the end of his life, violence and social upheaval were abhorrent to the idealist Wilberforce, who preferred to reform society by appealing to its sense of conscience and decency.

As interesting and edifying as the movie was, I was a bit disappointed that the script didn’t focus more on Newton and his influence on Wilberforce. Rather than the many scenes of arguing and political discussion in the House of Commons, a scene or two of him preaching would have been interesting. We learn bits of his story from anguished comments he makes to Wilberforce, but none of his dramatic history is shown through flashbacks (although most of the film jumps between Wilberforce’s early career and his later, unsuccessful battles to gain the MPs’ support.) We never see Wilberforce or his wife Barbara going to church, although we know that they were devout evangelical Christians. The best line in the movie came towards the end of Rev. Newton’s life, when the now blind preacher tells Wilberforce two things he has learned: “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Saviour.”

The stress of constant travel, speaking and fighting 20 years unsuccessfully against slavery (upon which the British Empire was economically dependent) took a toll on Wilberforce, who developed colitis and a dependency on the opiate pain medicine. We see him fight victoriously through withdrawal with Barbara’s loving support. In the movie, Wilberforce’s wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) shows a lively interest in all things politics, especially the abolitionist cause; but the historical Spooner did not have the same interest in her husband’s career. The couple raised six children together.

Wilberforce continued to fight for abolition until, days before his death in 1833, he saw the institution of slavery abolished throughout the British colonies. This is a wonderful, uplifting movie about a true hero for Christ, and includes a video of Chris Tomlin performing the medley “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone”.

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