Amazing Grace is the first must-see film of the year, offering glimpses into the complex life of the 18th-century evangelical Christian British social reformer, William Wilberforce. It’s an overwhelmingly Christian movie, but its timing for release in Black History Month should be a call for blacks worldwide to go and see a movie about the man behind the end of the slave trade in the British Empire and, ultimately, the end of slavery itself within the Empire. Americans of all colors seem to have wrongish notions of how slavery was ended and who ended it. Even fewer know that an estimated 27 million people live in slavery today.
“… many Americans do not know that 150-200 years ago the Bible Belt was the northeast, not the south.”
William Wilberforce has almost, but not quite, been forgotten by history, which is a terrible shame. The politically correct story believed by most people today is that it was evil social conservatives — especially Christians — who practiced slavery and enlightened atheists or deists who brought about its end. It is true that southern American Christians for the most part endorsed slavery and it is a stain upon my ancestry is that so many of them were slaveholders. Some of my ancestors were well-known in the church and one, to my family’s shame, was a prominent Mississippi Baptist pastor who was one of the leaders of the split of the Southern Baptists from the previously national Baptist faith. The split, of course, was over slavery.
However, many Americans do not know that 150-200 years ago the Bible Belt was the northeast, not the south. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his journeys across America wrote that in Kentucky and Tennessee — the primary parts of the south that he visited — “one sees few churches and no schools.” The south was not full of Christians as it is today, but was rather a Godless society. The north was founded by Christians, the south by non-Christians. It was the influence of churches that ended slavery in the north (yes, Virginia, the north had slaves, too — even after the Civil War) but that’s another story. The Bible strongly and clearly preaches against racial prejudice, as I’ve written before.
Wilberforce is played magnificently by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd. Gruffudd portrays Wilberforce with a passion bordering on madness, a man of action with a will of iron. He is mindful of one of the Old Testament saints like Elijah or Jeremiah. One can almost imagine Wilberforce calling fire down from heaven upon a corrupt British Parliament. The film focuses strongly upon the fond but sometimes strained relationship between Wilberforce and his close friend and ally, William Pitt the Younger. “Willie” Pitt — sophisticated, ambitious, and a reformer in his own right — died in his mid-forties yet accomplished many great things during his short life. They are buried next to each other in Westminster Cathedral and I have had the honor of visiting their graves.
The film is packed with first-rate British actors, such as Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Toby Jones, and Albert Finney. Finney is especially moving as the elderly John Newton, the British slave-ship captain who turned from his life of using men to a life of saving men as an Anglican preacher who taught tirelessly against the evils of slavery that he had witnessed first-hand. Finney, as Newton, says that he is perpetually haunted by the 20,000 ghosts of innocent Africans who had died on his ships. The horror and impact of his statement was almost palpable in the theater. It is Newton who encourages Wilberforce to embrace the notion that he can be involved in both politics and the work of God. Wilberforce never turned back from either.
Take your Bible study group, your Sunday School class, or your entire church to see this film. If you’re not a Christian, go and learn. Not only will you be moved spiritually, but you will be educated about one of the greatest men to ever live.
As an aside, watch the opening credits and note that actress Patricia Heaton — one of the few openly-Christian Hollywood stars — was one of the producers of this wonderful movie.