The Heart of Wilberforce’s Antislavery Campaign

As I wrote in my previous article, William Wilberforce became a leading abolitionist two centuries ago because of his strong Christian convictions. Without his Biblical-based beliefs, the course of history could be far different today.

A new film about the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery and the life of Wilberforce has just been released overseas. Entitled, “Amazing Grace,” it tells the story of his dogged efforts to overturn Britain’s slave trade.

The film has not opened in Australia as yet, but while many Christians are quite encouraged by the film, at least one Christian in the US who had seen the film faults it for downplaying Wilberforce’s vibrant faith. Writing in the Opinion Journal (February 23, 2007), Charlotte Allen argues that the film should have more clearly spelled out the Christian convictions of Wilberforce.

Says Allen, those watching “Michael Apted’s just-released film, may get the impression – perhaps deliberately fostered by Mr. Apted – that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice. Along the way, they may also get the impression that the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ is no more than an uplifting piece of music that sounds especially rousing on the bagpipes.”

The film does emphasise the enormous amount of effort he put into the abolitionist cause. “His relentless campaign eventually led Parliament to ban the slave trade, in 1807, and to pass a law shortly after his death in 1833, making the entire institution of slavery illegal. But it is impossible to understand Wilberforce’s long antislavery campaign without seeing it as part of a larger Christian impulse. The man who prodded Parliament so famously also wrote theological tracts, sponsored missionary and charitable works, and fought for what he called the ‘reformation of manners,’ a campaign against vice. This is the Wilberforce that Mr. Apted has played down.”

Allen provides a bit of church history to explain the work of Wilberforce: “Perhaps the leading evangelical force of the day was the Methodism of John Wesley: It focused on preaching, the close study of the Bible, communal hymn-singing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Central to the Methodist project was the notion that good works and charity were essential components of the Christian life. Methodism spawned a vast network of churches and ramified into the evangelical branches of Anglicanism. Nearly all the social-reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries – from temperance and soup kitchens to slum settlement houses and prison reform – owe something to Methodism and its related evangelical strains. The campaign against slavery was the most momentous of such reforms and, over time, the most successful.”

The hymn “Amazing Grace,” from which the film gets its title, is of course one of the world’s most beloved hymns. But many do not know the story behind it. Written by John Newton, it is the story of how Christ saves, including how he reached out to redeem one hardened slave-trader:

“Newton had spent a dissolute youth as a seaman and eventually became a slave-ship captain. In his 20s he underwent a kind of spiritual crisis, reading the Bible and Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. A decade later, having heard Wesley preach, he fell in with England’s evangelical movement and left sea-faring and slave-trading behind. Years later, under the influence of Wilberforce’s admonitions, he joined the antislavery campaign. The famous hymn amounted to an autobiography of his conversion: ‘Amazing grace . . . that saved a wretch like me.’ In the most moving moment of the film – and one of the few that addresses a Christian theme directly – the aged and now-blind Newton declares to Wilberforce: ‘I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior’.”

The faith component behind abolitionism cannot be ignored. “This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in For the Glory of God (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor. When chattel slavery, long absent from Europe, reappeared in imperial form in the 16th and 17th centuries – mostly in response to the need for cheap labor in the New World – the first calls to end the practice came from pious Christians, notably the Quakers. Evangelicals, not least Methodists, quickly joined the cause, and a movement was born.”

But Hollywood is not keen on giving credit where credit is due. Especially when it comes to Christianity. Allen notes that other films have similarly played down the evangelical Christian component: “Thanks to Wilberforce, the movement’s most visible champion, Britain ended slavery well before America, but the abolitionist cause in America, too, was driven by Christian churches more than is often acknowledged. Steven Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad, about the fate of blacks on a mutinous slave ship, also obscured the Christian zeal of the abolitionists.”

Hollywood, like much of the secular West, just cannot get its head around the fact that Christianity has been a real force for good in the world. Very few atheists, if any, were leading the charge against slavery two centuries ago. It was mostly men and women who were motivated by their Christian faith. But that story will not likely get a fair hearing from Hollywood studios. Indeed, Allen notes that the original screenwriter for the film, Colin Welland, who wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed and unabashedly Christian Chariots of Fire, was replaced because Apted did not want the film to come across as too ‘preachy’.”

But it is still hoped that those who do see the film will get some inkling of the role of faith in the life of Wilberforce. If not, blame it on “Hollywood’s ‘Amazing’ Glaze” as Allen puts it. As a corrective, some of the books about Wilberforce mentioned in my previous post can be consulted instead.

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One Reply to “The Heart of Wilberforce’s Antislavery Campaign”

  1. If anyone is familiar with John Piper – he has done a fantastic biography of Wiliam Wilberforce’s life. I would be interested to hear his opinion on the movie.
    Its a shame that movies which claim to represent an historical figure’s life often misses out on or underplays the faith of the person. For instance ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Luther’ and now maybe this film. Hopefully they say the name ‘Jesus’ at least once in it.
    Joshua Ferrara

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