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The ‘amazing grace’ that changed Wilberforce should inspire us to follow


William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is not a household name in the U.S., but it ought to be. Fortunately, Amazing Grace, a fine new film on the life of Wilberforce — British statesman, reformer and man of faith — corrects this embarrassing gap in our cultural awareness. The film coincides with the bicentennial celebration of the end of the slave trade in the British empire in 1807. Half a century before the U.S. abolished slavery — and, one might note, without a bloody Civil War — Wilberforce and his allies succeeded in passing legislation in the British Parliament that abolished the slave trade. How this came to pass is a fascinating story, and all the more so because it was Wilberforce’s faith that motivated his relentless work to end the cruel practice.
Ioan Gruffudd convincingly plays Wilberforce, a man who, in his 20s, undergoes a powerful religious conversion. When asked if he has found God, he replies, “I think he found me. Do you have any idea how inconvenient that is?” However inconvenient, the change was profound. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another man who faced horrific institutional evil a century later.
After his conversion, Wilberforce considered abandoning politics, but his friends persuaded him to use his talents for God in Parliament, rather than in pious retirement. And so the young reformer set out to do the impossible, despite chronic illness and youthful inexperience. (He was only 21 when he entered the House of Commons.) For 16 years, he labored to persuade Whigs and Tories, aristocrats and commoners alike, of the evils of slavery — with little success. Despite defeat after defeat, he pressed on with the encouragement of friends and his faithful wife, Barbara Ann, and he built coalitions that transcended political and sectarian boundaries.
One major influence on Wilberforce was the aged, near-blind John Newton, played brilliantly by Albert Finney. Newton, author of the famous hymn Amazing Grace, serves as a kind of choric figure and spiritual guide, reminding the young reformer of his calling and urging him on to action.
The hymn not only gives the movie its title. The words and melody suggest the emotional and spiritual center of the story, offering commentary on the plot:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

These sentiments describe the trajectory of Newton’s own life. He had been a wretched slave-trader himself, a captain of ships that had visited misery and death upon countless Africans. Then God claimed Newton and everything changed. Though Newton’s eyesight faded, he saw with piercing clarity the evil he had done and the superior grace that canceled his wrongdoing.
The hymn applies equally to the life of Wilberforce, a man who also had been lost in uncertainty before he found his vocation as a rescuer of the oppressed. And the words apply to the willfully blind citizens of the British Empire as well, as they justified grievous evil against hundreds of thousands of innocents for their own material advantage. In the words of Joseph Loconte, “The lure of profits and cheap supplies of sugar and tobacco kept the chattel machine running” — until Wilberforce opened the eyes of the English to the truth.
The movie manages to reveal genuine human goodness in a convincing and attractive way. Though utterly devout, Wilberforce was no dour saint. He was very much a warm-blooded mortal, famous for his good humor, extraordinary kindness, love of human society and compassion for all sufferers and the downtrodden. Though born into wealth, life was not easy. He suffered chronic illness, bitter attacks by political opponents, and periodic doubt. The film manages to present a Christian as an utterly likable and believable being, one who repeatedly fails and only triumphs after decades of trial and error.
It’s hard to recall another motion picture that offers such an inspirational story of a great Christian. One might have to go back 26 years to Chariots of Fire for a comparable movie. But the story of Eric Liddell, the Olympian who ran for the pleasure of God, pales beside Wilberforce, a man upon whom the fate of a race of people and the Empire rests.
We live in a dark age in which the popular media seem utterly obsessed with the trivial and the obscene. Night after night, the lurid stories of the unworthiest of types — the Anna Nicole Smiths, the Donald Trumps, the Britney Spears — are paraded before our eyes. Where are the examples of faith, hope, love, courage and goodness? Where are the inspirational models worthy of our children’s imitation? In fact, they stand tall in Amazing Grace.
Today, there is great interest in the relationship between religion and politics. Should religion have a role in the shaping of our society? Do the principles of Christianity have political consequences? Wilberforce is a splendid example of a man whose faith suffuses his whole being — his private and public life. Overwhelmed by the sense of God’s infinite love, he is driven to help others know Christ and to treat them with infinite respect. If there is a fault in this film, it is only that it chose too large a man for its subject. Wilberforce did much more good in the world than can be captured in one film. Only a piece of the story has been told.
The work that Wilberforce began is hardly complete. Slavery has not ended. Human trafficking continues. Unspeakable abuses against humanity occur throughout the world every day. Wilberforce’s faith motivated him to relieve hunger, bring release to the captives, improve the lot of the poor, women, children — even animals. (He helped found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) The amazing grace that changed Wilberforce’s life changed the world. Perhaps this good film will inspire a new Wilberforce in our day to rise up and continue in his extraordinary, grace-filled steps.
DARRYL TIPPENS is provost of Pepperdine University and worships with the University Church of Christ in Malibu, Calif.

Filed under: Staff Reports Views

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