Thursday, March 29, 2007

William Wilberforce and Amazing Grace

william wilberforce
"God Almighty has placed before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners (morals)."
- William Wilberforce, journal entry, October 20, 1897
I went to watch Amazing Grace on Tuesday night. As most of you probably know, this year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, and William Wilberforce, whom this film is about, was a primary force behind this.

Let me just quickly talk about the movie from a primarily aesthetic viewpoint first. Told initially through flashbacks, the film unsurprisingly focuses mainly on Wilberforce’s struggle against slavery, set against the backdrop of political machinations, his failing health, and his friendship with William Pitt, the Prime Minister. In other words, it is, as far as I know, very faithful to the historical account. However, in dramatic terms, it means that the movie can be a little flat at times. Drama is all about conflict, and while there are conventional “bad guys”, they are not very well drawn-out. It would have been better if a little more time was spent exploring those who were in favour of the slave trade.

Having said that, I hasten to add that Amazing Grace is still a good movie, and indeed, a necessary movie. Ioan Gruffuld portrays Wilberforce pretty well, and there are powerful moments, particularly when he seeks advice from John Newton (writer of Amazing Grace, hence the movie’s title). I managed to read a biography of Wilberforce prior to watching the film, and was fascinated by what was clearly a close friendship with William Pitt – that came across as well. The movie also seamlessly weaves in Wilberforce’s Christian faith with his convictions so that it never feels like an add-on.

While it is not necessary to have known anything about Wilberforce before watching Amazing Grace, it helps! So for example, the film assumes some knowledge about Charles Fox and the Clapham Sect. But I guess, on the other hand, the film is meant to arouse your curiosity in the first place and lets you fill in the gaps later!

William Wilberforce remains relevant for us today, and anyone watching Amazing Grace will no doubt be able to draw parallels with contemporary issues today. What do I think Wilberforce/Amazing Grace have to teach us?

Firstly, the importance of history. I am a poor history student – I'd blame the Malaysian education system, but that’s taking the easy way out isn’t it? We are all blinkered by our times, and it is always helpful to go beyond the Now. As one historian says, someone trying to understand the present is like a man with his nose pressed against the mirror while trying to see the body.

Secondly, the importance of perseverance and hope. Wilberforce saw his bill defeated year after year in parliament, and there is no doubt that there must be plenty of times when he despaired. Wilberforce gave his whole life; he died 2 days after the Commons victory. To do so, he needed to have hope, hope that his vision would really come to fruition.

Thirdly, the need for moral clarity. Wilberforce knew that slavery was wrong, and for most of us today, this is obvious. But during those times, confusion reigned, and indeed, even John Newton himself had trouble seeing what exactly was wrong with slavery. We need to ask for God’s help to see through the fog of many similarly complex ethical issues today, and for confidence in what we know to be right.

Fourthly, amazing grace! God used an imperfect person, John Newton (who was obviously aware of that fact!) to inspire Wilberforce. Wilberforce himself was not always saintly – he was pragmatic in attaining office (vote-buying), and some today will no doubt be a bit alarmed at some suspiciously right-wing looking tendencies (imprisonment without trial, anyone?). But he knew he was weak, both physically and spiritually, and had no doubt that it was the gospel he depended on.

Fifthly, the sovereignty of God. God often looks as if he’s absent from this world, especially in light of injustice. But God is not deaf to the cries of the suffering, and he demonstrated this supremely on the cross, which consequently means that for those who trust in him, even as they work hard to show God’s kingly rule today, they can look forward to a day when his kingly rule will be consummated. I think Wilberforce understood this, for though his name is primarily associated with the slavery trade, he knew too that it was faith in Jesus that was at the heart of his vision. For instance, when the British East India Company's charter came up for renewal in 1813, he fought successfully to insure that Christian teachers would be sent to India along with the company's entrepreneurs.

For further reading:

William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity – Kevin Belmonte
This is apparently the best biography available by a guy considered the foremost authority on him (He was the consultant for the movie). I failed to locate it; I should have known it would come out to coincide with the film!

William Wilberforce – Steven Tomkins
This is the bio I eventually picked up, and I enjoyed it. Written by a BBC journalist with a PhD in church history, it examines the political context pretty closely, and never descends into hagiography (excessive praise without merit). I only wished he talked a little more about Wilberforce’s faith in relation to his politics. Yet he obviously has affection for his subject matter.

Amazing Grace in the life of William Wilberforce – John Piper
This is ideal for anyone wanting a short introduction, weighing in at 64 pages. The blurb suggests that Piper is especially interested in the spiritual basis for his passion and perseverance.

Wilberforce – John Pollock
An older treatment reissued by a noted biographer. I believe he wrote an award-winning bio of Hudson Taylor.

The Amazing Grace of Freedom: The Inspiring Faith of William Wilberforce – Ted Baehr et al.
This is the “official” book, which I think is in a coffee-table format, with nice pictures and attractively laid out commentaries, plus essays. So if that’s your thing, this is the book you might want to look at.

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