Amazing Grace (2007)

David Vaughan

Amazing Grace attempts to tell the story of the British MP, William Wilberforce, and his long crusade against the British slave trade.

Wilberforce was born in Hull in 1759. The son of a merchant, he inherited his father's wealth when he died, and was later rewarded by his uncle's will. As a result, Wilberforce was a wealthy man at a fairly young age. Having his whole life before him, Wilberforce decided to run for Parliament, being elected to Commons when only 21 years old. A close friend of William Pitt, soon to be Prime Minister, Wilberforce was destined for political power. But God had other plans.

In 1784 he took a European trip with an old friend, Isaac Milner, an Evangelical Christian. As they traversed the Continent, Milner and Wilberforce read the Greek New Testament and Philip Doddridge's book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. By 1785 Wilberforce experienced "the great change" - he was born again.

His new-found faith led to a crisis of calling. Wilberforce considered leaving politics, but both Pitt and John Newton encouraged him to use his political office for a greater good than personal power. After being lobbied by abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and others, Wilberforce gave his first abolition speech in Commons in 1789. This was the beginning of a life-long crusade to abolish not only the slave trade (abolition) but slavery itself (emancipation).

Wilberforce did not labor alone, however. He rose to leadership of the Clapham Sect, a group of Evangelicals active in political, philanthropic, and religious causes. Under his leadership the "Saints," as they were called, championed parliamentary and prison reforms, missionary endeavors, Bible distribution, and many other religious and charitable efforts. At one time in his life Wilberforce was a member of sixty-nine different charitable organizations.

Wilberforce's remarkable leadership was demonstrated by his unrelenting forty-four year struggle against slavery in spite of repeated setbacks in Parliament. He labored for eighteen years to secure the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, enduring personal criticism, deep-seated prejudice, and threats on his life. He worked for another twenty-six years before the Emancipation Bill was finally passed in July 1833. Three days later he died.

Amazing Grace, the movie, does a good job of depicting Wilberforce's protracted struggle against slavery. In fact, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the trade while neglecting the many other charitable enterprises that he championed. Of course, a full-length movie could hardly cover Wilberforce's multi-faceted career. But apart from a few scenes where Wilberforce's home is invaded by the poor, one would hardly know that he spent considerable sums of his own money to relieve poverty. At times Wilberforce would personally visit the "debtor" prisons and hand out money to the inmates. As a specimen of his generosity, it was not uncommon for him to donate up to three-fourths of his income a year, and in one year alone he gave away more money than he made.

Wilberforce's success as a leader was partly due to his winsome personality. He had a remarkable knack for friendships, and was even liked by many of his political enemies. Amazing Grace attempts to show the humorous side of Wilberforce's personality, but fails to fully bring to life his extraordinary charm. He too often seems tormented and troubled. At other times he appears uncertain and apprehensive. Yet in real life Wilberforce was a well-spring of hope to the Saints, ever-confident that their cause would succeed.

Some viewers of the movie may be surprised to learn that Wilberforce was plagued by sickness nearly his entire adult life. In fact, his health was worse than depicted in the movie. He suffered form ulcerative colitis, scoliosis and extremely poor eye sight. In his later years he had to wear a leather-coated metal brace to hold up his back and was nearly blind in one eye. Wilberforce's opium (laudanum) use was mandatory, and credited with saving his life. He was dependant on opium much the same way a diabetic is dependant on insulin.

While it is clear in Amazing Grace that Wilberforce is a Christian, some will be disappointed that the movie did not more explicitly show his conversion or that his decision to battle slavery was a divine calling. The Saints were not just a political action committee. They worshipped together, prayed together, witnessed together, and lived a truly covenantal life together. None of this was seen in the movie.

Moreover, the story of abolition is also the story of the power of the gospel. The unseen background of Wilberforce's work was the spiritual movement known as the Great Awakening. All throughout England and America the gospel was ablaze under the preaching of Wesley and Whitefield, and many thousands of people came to Christ in a generation. What we did not learn from the movie, is that when Wilberforce presented Commons with petitions from "the people," a vast majority of these were Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Dissenters and Anglican - many of whom had been touched by the Great Awakening. Had it not been for the Great Awakening there would have been no abolition--at least not in Wilberforce's day.

Historians have also credited the Great Awakening with saving England from a bloody revolution like the one that engulfed France. When Wilberforce is warned by Pitt against "sedition," we must remember that at the time there were revolutionary groups all over England calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. These were violent times. There had been an assassination attempt on the king and mobs had beaten government officers. When news of the bloodbath in France landed in England, abolition was halted for years. Any talk of "equality" and "people's rights" sounded like outright rebellion. Amazing Grace does not make this clear, and we are left wondering why Wilberforce is reprimanded for writing Jefferson, or why the Saints apparently disband. The truth is, they never did disband. They continued to work on many causes, although Wilberforce was forced to suspend his annual petition in Commons to abolish the trade.

On the whole Amazing Graze should be applauded for introducing one of history's greatest Christian leaders to a whole new generation. Skillful acting, beautiful cinematography, historical accuracy, all contribute to make Amazing Grace an absorbing tale of courage and perseverance, virtues born of Christian faith.

Directed by Michael Apted
Review by David J. Vaughan, Minister of Liberty Christian Church (MO) and author of Statesman and Saint: The Principled Politics of William Wilberforce