MAY / JUNE 2014: BY HANNAH PRICE
Most people know the classic hymn Amazing Grace, even if they’re not Christians, and the story behind it as well. Author John Newton’s journey from atheistic slave ship owner to Christian abolition supporter is a wonderful tale of redemption and forgiveness. However, the film Amazing Grace isn’t about Newton’s life, even though he does play a supporting role. Instead, it is about William Wilberforce, a lesser-known abolitionist whose role was crucial in eventually stamping out slavery in England in the 1800’s.
While William Wilberforce’s life story isn’t quite as filled with drama and spiritual warfare as John Newton’s, the “amazing grace” that Newton wrote about is just as evident in his life. He was a member of Parliament and owned a large estate, was wealthy, a fantastic orator, persuasive, determined, passionate, occupied with the pursuit of reform, well acquainted with high-ranking officials—essentially in a very powerful position for a man so young. However, in the early scenes we see of Wilberforce portrayed as a man filled with conviction and compassion instead of simply ambition. He is kind to his servants, feeds the poor freely and generously, is outspoken about his Christian beliefs and always makes room in his schedule for some one-on-one time with God.
All of these characteristics and circumstances tell Wilberforce’s abolitionist friends that he is the man for the job of opening up the subject of a bill to abolish the slave trade in England to Parliament. It takes time and effort on the part of Thomas Clarkson, former slave Olaudah Equiano, and Charles Middleton particularly, to present multiple arguments and testimonials to persuade him. After the formal dinner party in which the subject is formally presented to Wilberforce, he is hesitant and uncertain. It takes much prayer, thought, and consulting with John Newton for him to finally accept the proposal and take the bill to the floor.
As expected, Parliament doesn’t take to the proposed bill well. In fact, the entire thing is so disastrous that Wilberforce and his friends end up campaigning for years. The slave trade has a major hand in the back pockets of the opposition, keeping them from even considering the bill that Wilberforce campaigns so actively for. Eventually, all of the abolitionists show their true fortitude, endurance, and faith that God ordained their cause by never giving up, even after decades of failure. As the head of the movement, Wilberforce gives up more than he bargained for the cause—his youth and his health. However, recognizable good does come from the campaign. Many British citizens rally to the abolitionists’ side and sign their petition. Wilberforce also meets his future wife through his abolitionist friends. Awareness and support is raised by demonstration and peaceful protests. Little by little, inch-by-inch, Wilberforce and his allies gain ground in the British Empire, even in high places with William Pitt, an old friend of Wilberforce’s who became the youngest Prime Minister in English history.
The journey takes Wilberforce twenty-six years but he finally succeeds in his quest when the Slave Trade Act of 1807 passes in Parliament. Although he didn’t live to see the complete abolition of slavery (which came to pass in with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833), he died knowing that the world had changed and that others would pick up where he left off.
As far as great Christian leaders and influences go, William Wilberforce is a stirring example of dedication and faith. His passion for God was so great that it came before anything else, including his job in Parliament. One of my favorite scenes shows him shortly after his conversion, going down into his garden early in the morning and praying, marveling at the beauty of God’s creation. When his manservant finds him wandering around getting wet in the morning dew and investigating spider webs, he reminds his master of his daily appointments and duties, and asks if Wilberforce has “found God.” Wilberforce replies, “I think He found me. You have any idea how inconvenient that is? How idiotic it will sound? I have a political career glittering ahead of me, and in my heart I want spider’s webs.”
Wilberforce follows his conviction with a purpose-driven life, choosing to use his high position to champion reform in many areas, calling for positive changes in morals, education, religion and working conditions.
At the very end of the movie, Lord Charles Fox pays Wilberforce a great compliment that essentially sums him up in a nutshell: “When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon—men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. And yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppression of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more.” ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hannah Price thrives on creativity and loves to be inspired by the creativity of others. Her passion is storytelling in all its forms of expression. Some of those loves are American Sign Language, theater, film, audio drama and the varied mediums of art (painting, drawing, etc.). She wants to be involved in film production someday, as she is already involved in theater production and would like to be able to turn her hobbies into a full time occupation.