One of my favorite movies is “Amazing Grace,” the 2006 film recounting the life of William Wilberforce, the late 18th/early 19th century crusader against the slave trade. When buying Eric Metaxas’ Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (Monarch Books, 2007), I wondered if it would be as good as the cinematic production. The answer is: It’s not as good. It’s better.
Metaxas brings the sure hand of a veteran storyteller to his subject matter. Though he did much research for the book, he avoids footnoting, preferring instead to move the narrative along at a brisk clip, unburdened by any academic apparatus. (At the back of the book, he points interested readers to more scholarly books on Wilberforce). With wit and an engaging style, the author transports the reader back to the time when the slave trade every year saw 50,000 Africans kidnapped (mostly from the West African coast) and transported in horrific conditions across the Atlantic to the West Indies and the American colonies. Those who survived – sometimes as few as half on-board – lived short and brutal lives on sugar plantations on Caribbean islands like Jamaica, Barbados and St. Kitt.
Through the pages of Amazing Grace, one key lesson emerges: If you know your cause is just, never give up. It took twenty years of sweat and toil as a team of abolitionists led by Wilberforce for Parliament to finally outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire. Though tempted at times to give up, the MP from Yorkshire – a mere 5 foot 3 inches and sickly – proved to be small but mighty.
Yet Metaxas tempered this heroic portrayal in important ways, humanizing the protagonist. Wilberforce’s cause took him away from his family, so much that one time his young son didn’t recognize his own father when Wilberforce took him screaming from the house maid’s arms! Metaxas also noted Wilberforce’s tendency to jump from one topic to another, finding it hard to discipline himself and stay focused on one subject. Wilberforce himself attributed this to the raucous lifestyle that he lived at Cambridge as a young man, where he never learned to focus sufficiently on study. To what degree this was influenced as well by his decades-long dependence upon opium to treat his colitis is also not clear.
Metaxas’ biography makes at least two major contributions that go beyond the film. First, he delves much deeper into Wilberforce’s Christian faith, talking about his conversion (the “Great Change”) and how he was influenced by Methodism, the stricter form of belief promulgated in the 18th century by George Whitefield and John Wesley. In contrast to those giants of faith, the author does a commendable job showing how Wilberforce lived a much sunnier form of evangelical faith including a ready wit and positive celebration of life’s wholesome joys. Secondly, Metaxas explains how Wilberforce’s Christian faith informed his concern for the numerous other social causes he promoted. These included prison reform, successfully passing a bill through Parliament to open up India for missionary work (which included abolition of the ritual burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands) and founding the SPCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
All-in-all, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery does an excellent job of providing further details necessarily cut-out of a 2 hour movie. I read the book in about 12 hours over two days and found myself pulled along by the story, impressed by the skill of the author. Other than two very small errors in the text, the editing was excellent and the still color photos from the movie welcome. Christians who marry personal piety with social action informed by faith will appreciate this well-drawn portrait of a great man.
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