Amazing Grace

The film Amazing Grace, the story of Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, has opened in cinemas across Australia. The film, despite some shortcomings, is well worth seeing. One of the chief drawbacks of the film is the decided underplaying of the strong Biblical and evangelical convictions that inspired and sustained Wilberforce and his colleagues as they fought the slave trade. Yet Amazing Grace does help to remind us that one man, committed to Christ, can make an enormous difference.

Of course Wilberforce was not alone in the fight against slavery, and there were a number of factors that entered into the abolitionist cause. Just one of these factors worth mentioning is the conversion of John Newton. The English slave ship captain underwent a powerful conversion to Christ beginning in 1748 and maturing in the 1750s. Thus he still captained slave ships for some years, but he gave away seafaring in 1754. He became active as an Anglican clergyman and hymn writer. He is best known for penning the great hymn, Amazing Grace, along with many others. He moved to London in 1779, where he and Wilberforce would work together.

wilberforce 4For several decades after his conversion he tended to avoid the slavery issue, in part because he believed that as a clergyman he should not be involved in political disputes. But those concerns eventually receded, and he proved to be an invaluable ally to Wilberforce, both as a spiritual counsellor, and as a source of information about the slave trade. Indeed, his 1788 book, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, based upon his first-hand experience, proved to be an invaluable resource for Wilberforce and the abolitionists. Newton died in December 1807, the year the Abolition Act was passed.

Amazing Grace is a good introduction to Wilberforce and the abolitionists, but it needs to be supplemented with further reading, and a number of good books exist on the topic, to help round out the picture. But both the film and the literature offer us important inspiration and instruction today.

Lessons for today

The work of Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect (the group of evangelical activists based in Clapham near London) contains many important lessons for contemporary Christians. Here are seven key lessons:

One. For the believer, there should be no separation between sacred and secular. Spiritual work can be accomplished as much in politics as in the pulpit. Wilberforce was fully motivated by Christian conviction, and he was involved in various “spiritual” works, such as Sunday school societies, the Bible Societies, Jewish missions, and various missionary societies. But he is perhaps best known for his political activism. He saw all work performed for Christ and his kingdom as important and spiritual, not just some. All in all, he was involved in 70 different societies, which embraced both “religious” and more humanitarian concerns. His Christian faith led him directly to activism in the public arena.

Two. Prayer and activism must go together. The Clapham Sect certainly prayed about their cause. But they did all the hard work as well, knowing that activism and prayer must run in tandem. Thus they were real activists, fully researching their subjects, gathering petitions, making speeches, raising funds, awakening the conscience of the general public, as well as fellow Parliamentarians, and so on. They put feet to their prayers, in other words, and were hugely successful as a result.

Three. Working together with others to achieve an important goal is vital. A major reason why the evangelical abolitionists succeeded was because they were willing to work as part of a wider network of forces opposed to slavery. Thus they recognised the great value of cobelligerents, of working with others of quite different persuasions, but united – even if temporarily – for a common purpose. Wilberforce wrote that “bringing together all men who are like-minded” is “a principle I hold to be of first-rate importance”. It is a principle we need to adhere to as well.

Four. Perseverance is essential. Wilberforce formed an Abolition Committee in 1787, and made his first speech on the evils of slavery in 1789. Year after year he introduced his bill to see slavery ended. Year after year he met with failure and rejection. Eleven times the abolitionists were out-voted, once by just seventeen votes.

It was not until March 1807 that the Abolition Bill was finally enacted. And it was not until 25 July 1833 that the Emancipation Act was passed, four days before Wilberforce died. Thus he had to spend nearly 50 years in this work before real victory was achieved. Wilberforce was not a quitter. Neither should we be.

Five. Be prepared for strong opposition. The abolitionists faced huge obstacles, with many powerful vested interests – especially economic – arrayed against them. Even the Established Church was often railing against them. They were regularly derided and ridiculed in Parliament and elsewhere, and were mockingly referred to as “The Saints”. Yet they kept going, despite the intensity of the opposition and the ferocity of the attacks. All important work for God will encounter opposition, and those involved in it will face persecution and villainy. But that is the cost we must pay for doing right.

Six. A sense of calling is vital. Knowing that you have a divine calling for the difficult tasks you undertake provides a real anchor, especially when faced with adversity, opposition, self-doubt and loneliness. Wilberforce knew he was called for this task. He could write in his diary in 1787: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” And he undertook these works with great energy and passion, knowing he was divinely appointed and commissioned.

And he had others who encouraged him along the way. A letter by John Wesley in 1791 is a great example: “Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God is with you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

Or as Newton wrote Wilberforce in 1787, “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation”.

Seven. God’s work almost always seems to be done by a minority. The idea of a remnant, of a select few, who battle against the odds, is a theme repeated throughout Scripture. Whether we consider David against Goliath, or Gideon against the Midianites, God seems to prefer working with a few to confound the many. This was certainly true of Wilberforce. He never had more than 20 to 30 committed helpers during his five decades fighting slavery.

In sum, there is much we can learn from Wilberforce and his battle against slavery. We can take heart from his life and work, especially those involved in the difficult culture wars that engulf us. As I often tell audiences when speaking about seemingly intractable problems like abortion, we need to persevere as Wilberforce did.

I remind them that because of his efforts, we can now look back and say, “Incredible! They used to treat blacks as non-persons back then”. I remind pro-lifers, for example, that if we persist in fighting the good fight, perhaps one day soon people will likewise look back and say: “How barbaric. They used to kill unborn babies back then”.

So we must persist, and the life of Wilberforce needs to be ever at the forefront of our hearts and minds. As Paul rightly reminds us, let us not grow weary in well-doing.

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11 Replies to “Amazing Grace”

  1. Another lesson: the fallacy of “Keep religion out of politics”. This is probably the most common trap that Christians can fall into today. But Wilberforce faced exactly the same attitudes. For example, Lord Melbourne (1779–1848), a future Prime Minister of the UK after whom the city is named, pontificated: ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.’ Likewise the 4th Earl of Abingdon (1740–1799) spouted, ‘Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon’.

    And if a supporter of prenatal baby butchery says, ‘Don’t like abortions? Don’t have one!’ point out that this is just like, ‘Don’t like slavery? Don’t own slaves!’

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  2. Two major inaccuracies of the movie both involved John Newton:
    1. The movie had Newton haunted by his private ghosts such that would not mention anything about the slave trade until he had one foot in the grave. This was not true. He published his “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade” in 1788, when the campaign had only just begun, and was instrumental in supplying constant ammunition for Wilberforce throughout the 20 year campaign. Newton was not some sideline observer, as the movie portrayed him.
    2. The movie portrayed Newton as a monkish recluse in the Catholic mould (to curry favour with Roman Catholics?). He was anything but! He was a minister of the Church of England, a product of the Evangelical Revival, whose company was with such leaders as George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Romaine and others in the period after he gave up life on the sea. He was no ascetic monk.
    Then after first toying with the idea of going into ministry with the Dissenters he entered the Established Church. After a period of ministry at Olney until Dec. 1779, he then moved to St Mary’s, Woolnoth at the end of that year. From here he exercised a powerful Evangelical ministry until his death in 1807. Like all the Evangelical leaders, he was passionately opposed to Roman Catholicism.

    I did find the film quite moving, but still infected with the modern “tolerance” outlook, which forces a down-playing of the passionate convictions of Wilberforce. One other thing not mentioned was his book, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians…contrasted with Real Christianity” – but I daresay that would be too strong a dose of medicine for our insipid post-modernism!

    Murray Adamthwaite

  3. I wonder if Murray could tell us how much of a contributing factor the evangelical revival of Whitefield and Wesley was to the eventual success of Wilberforce and the abolitionists? Presumably the impact of this revival on the English public would have filtered through to parliament – a factor that is to date absent in our favour in our fight against abortion.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  4. Who says the Media is Biased?

    Friday 15th March 2007, the BBC TV presenter, Moira Stewart, of Afro-Caribbean descent, and who clearly has a vested interest in the multiculturalism that is tearing the heart out of Britain, put out a programme which was not so much a celebration of Wilberfoce’s achievement as an attempt to besmirch his name.
    “Red” Ken Livingstone, Islamophile, homophile and atheist mayor of London, also, predictably, couldn’t resist putting the boot in.

    David Skinner, UK

  5. Over the past year I have had opportunity to travel to Asia on two occasions. Both times involved working with NGOs working to bring women out of prostitution.
    Last night my wife and I saw Amazing Grace and my mind quickly went to my experiences in Asia. Although Wilberforce had an amazing victory in the 1800s, the issue of slavery is still very much on the agenda.
    Tens of thousands of women are taken as slaves each year to fill the brothels of the world. In Bangok alone there are literally thousands of working prostitutes. To my knowledge there are only four small Christian NGOs working to offer these women another option. These four groups reach maybe 150 women at a time. Do we need another Wilberforce to stir us into action?
    Warwick Murphy, Melbourne

  6. In addition to Warwick’s comment, I would point out that recent changes in the Victorian Parliament may be opening a door to further radical changes locally.

    Conservative Premier Steve Bracks with Deputy John Thwaites have passed the baton to John Brumby, an excellent Treasurer, and Attorney-General Rob Hulls.

    Candy Broad has launched a Private Member’s Bill to remove the last barrier to abortion by amending the Crimes Act.

    And in today’s Monash Journal Maxine Morand (newly promoted to Cabinet) is splashed across the front page promoting euthanasia and supporting the “Dying with Dignity Victoria” lobby group.

    If the conservative influence of the former Premier diminishes, is there a risk that these measures may gain the support of the Cabinet, seeing that they are already part of the ALP platform?

    John Angelico


    David Skinner, UK

    David, I read those articles, and I agree with your implied answer. I also notice that the Red Ken article skates over the thin ice of supposed “Catholic complicity” in the holocaust, despite evidence that Pius XII was actively supporting rescues of Jewish people.

    And I note that no-one has so far mentioned his name-sake David Livingstone, who worked in East Africa to implement the laws passed in Britain, and to challenge the trade which continued there. That’s putting real feet onto the Gospel message!

    John Angelico

  8. Concerning Lessons For Today no. 3 (uniting for a common purpose): I am an atheist who does not object to early stage abortion because I truly do not believe that unborn babies have an everlasting soul. Yet I agree with many of the aims I see posted here, to counter the erosion of values (such as honesty and true generosity) and the decline of civility. Do you think it is really possible to work together on these points of agreement, when there is also disagreement about something so fundamental as abortion? Could we work together to prevent pornography from assualting children, for example, or would that be asking too much of one another? I ask because I am wondering what types of coalition might be possible in own work.
    Benjamin Backus

  9. Thanks Benjamin

    The short answer is it is possible, and it has happened. I have been involved in this myself. It is called being a cobelligerent. That is, one can work with others for more limited, specific ends, even though there is wider disagreement elsewhere.

    In Proverbs it says, “How can two walk together unless they be agreed?” Good point. While we can and should work with others for various objectives, at some point fundamental differences will emerge concerning worldviews, philosophy, theology, etc. So one needs to keep those limitations in mind.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Bill, thank you for your thoughts about this. Onward, then!
    Benjamin Backus

  11. I know it’s old but it’s a great article Bill, as you know I don’t agree with all your views, but this one I 100000% agree with brother. The heart is pure and aiming to please our Lord. Hoping us Catholics and Labor for Life people are included in who you will work with, we are here to help. Must also on a separate note 6 years later, is all Christians should pray for the election of the next Pope, a prayer that Christians of all denominations SHOULD be praying for.

    Tara Kelly

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