Posted by: Robin | April 8, 2008

“Amazing Grace”

When I first saw a preview of the movie about William Wilberforce’s fight to get legislation passed in the United Kingdom to outlaw slavery, I was excited. Wilberforce has been a hero of mine for many years.  The more I learn of his life and the ups and downs of his crusades for equality and justice for all the disenfranchised, the more astonishing it becomes. Including Wilberforce’s relationship with John Newton, the former slave-trader-turned-Anglican-rector who wrote the words for the hymn “Amazing Grace” was a bonus. I recently picked up a book of Newton’s letters and found him a remarkable and engaging man. I saw the movie in the theater and just bought the DVD because this is an important story for anyone who cares about righting injustice and imagines it an impossible task.

As a film I question how well anyone who was unfamiliar with the story and the historical period could fully appreciate the story on one viewing. The writer and director had the uneviable task of covering thirty-plus years of a man’s life who was engaged in activities that don’t often lend themselves to a visual medium. But we do get a clear picture of a man of kindness, integrity and courage who spent his health, material resources and career to spearhead causes (he worked for child welfare and founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) that most of his contemporaries and peers found inexplicable during a period when the UK was under siege from within and without. At times it was truly dangerous. Wilberforce was not alone in his fight, but for much of the time those working with him (with the exception of William Pitt the Younger) were a who’s who of the marginalized.

If I were to grade this film for its merit as a film I could only give it a “C,” but it is a story that we all need to know, particularly now.  We are in an election year when the shouts for change are echoing in every sound bite. Whatever else may be said, Barack Obama’s candidacy has energized people of all ages to become engaged in the political process again, or for the first time. It is exciting to see. In our history watershed moments have risen every few decades when the pieces finally came together and the momentum was irresistible and needed changes long denied came to fruition. I lived through one such moment, and I hope this is another. Maybe the awareness we had and then most of us lost in the 1960s and early ’70s that the environment and our energy needs required our attention will at last become an integrated way of life, for example. But whether this is a moment of real change or a moment when issues are at last crystallized and the fight only begun, let us remember William Wilberforce and all those who did not give up the fight for what was just and right when the rest of us would have. May we be blessed with the “amazing grace” that vision and perseverence against the odds require.



  1. Robin-

    I loved the movie as well for a lot of the same reasons you pointed out. The glimpse it gives us of that tumultuous period in the British empire, according to the extra information on the DVD I have, is pretty factual. It shows, I think, the tremendous forces anyone who works for justice is up against- the “vested interests” that prevent even good people from getting involved. But it also shows the courage of determined people to give their very life work to a labor of love and the rewards that even partial victories can bring.
    I have to add that this was a fascinating time for what was going on in churches with which John Newton had a close association with. It has come to be known in Protestant Missions as the birth of the modern missionary movement-1792 with the sailing of William Carey to India. Within a few short years, there were at least three Foreign Mission Boards organized in England and another in the U.S.


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