I went to the movies last Friday night with my wife, mother, and friends. This is a rare excursion for us, so you know the movie had to be highly recommended. What we discovered was more than an excellent movie, and more than a true story (which is my favorite kind). This is a story of one man’s faith in Christ and his belief that with God’s help he could actually change the world.
The movie is entitled, “Amazing Grace.” It is the story of the tumultuous ordeal endured by William Wilberforce, an English parliamentarian, who single-handedly brought an end to the hideous practice of slavery by Great Britain. The opposition he faced over a lifetime of protesting this barbaric institution would have crushed a lesser man. Wilberforce proved not to be a lesser man because he believed that God specifically appointed him to see this endeavor through. The movie opens with a letter from reformer John Wesley encouraging Wilberforce to press on in his efforts to end slavery in Britain.
The abolition of slavery came about simply because this lone, single, solitary man would not take no for an answer. Each year he would introduce legislation before Parliament seeking to end this blight on humanity. For more than forty years he would force the leaders of Britain to look at this ugly affair, not allowing them to rest comfortably while African men, women and children were sold on the open market like so much cattle.
This was during an era when Great Britain was regarded as the most powerful nation in the world. Their ships sailed the seven seas, colonizing areas all around the globe. During this period Great Britain’s reach around the world was so extensive that it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. It was also during this time when the fabled Lord Admiral Horatio Hornblower ruled the seas for his beloved Britain. A few years ago a series of movies came out chronicling the legendary life of Admiral Hornblower, played by the brilliant British actor Ioan Gruffudd, who also plays William Wilberforce in “Amazing Grace.”
As a young boy, Wilberforce came under the preaching and teaching ministry of John Newton. It is Newton who penned the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” which has become a beloved hymn of the church for the ages. John Newton had been a slave trader, trafficking in human cargo between Africa, England and the Americas. It was during a fierce storm at sea that he cried out to God to save him. This began an awakening in Newton’s heart, gradually revealing that his participation in the slave trade was evil. To now call himself a Christian while still trafficking in slavery was a violation of God’s intended purpose. In submitting to God’s will, Newton studied the Bible in its entirety, eventually being ordained a minister of the gospel. Newton never felt himself worthy of God’s forgiveness and grace, but he faithfully preached with such passion and conviction that young William Wilberforce felt compelled to trust Christ in bringing about change in the world.
As a young man serving in the Parliament, Wilberforce was undaunted in his loud protestations concerning the practice of slavery in Britain. Frequently he was shouted down by his fellow Parliamentarians. Yet, he was tireless, though he did pay a heavy price in his body which frequently drained him of energy. He was eventually diagnosed with colitis, a condition characterized by inflammation of the colon, accompanied by lower-bowel spasms and upper abdominal cramps, usually frequented with diarrhea.
Actor Albert Finney plays John Newton and does a masterful job. He’s a crusty, tough old man who has seen more than his share of human misery. He lives with the knowledge that he was responsible for transporting more than twenty thousand slaves on the coffin ships, as they were called. Typically, half or better of the slaves who were chained into cramped quarters on a ship, died before reaching Jamaica or the United States.
While in college I signed up for a class in African-American History, taught by Dr. Malcolm LaPlace. Dr. LaPlace had written a book about Black History which outlined in graphic detail the inhumane treatment of Africans sold to slave traders who then shipped them to strange places on the other side of the world. I became friends with Dr. LaPlace and his wife, learning much more from him over the next two years. He had served as one of the first African-American commissioned officers in the United States Army during World War Two. Even though he was wearing the uniform of our country, he was still treated as a second class citizen, required to sit in the back of the bus, eat in black restaurants only, and called “Boy” while fighting for our nation against the likes of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Imperialist Japan.
William Wilberforce died in 1833 after finally bringing about the end of slavery in Great Britain. With God’s help, he succeeded in dramatically changing the world. He was a force of one. What he never realized is that his actions in England began a tidal wave that ultimately crashed on the shores of America, emboldening the abolitionist movement in these United States. His actions forced the issue of slavery to take center stage, bringing about its eventual repeal through our own bloody Civil War. My church denomination was officially formed in 1860 as a result of the slavery issue. One of the reasons we call ourselves “Free” Methodists is based on the premise that, “No man has a right to own another man. Every man has a right to be free!”
“Amazing Grace” is a must see movie.
But let me ask you: Do you believe that God wants to use you in some way that is beyond your ability? Is God big enough for the task to which he has called you? You’ll never know until you step out in faith – like William Wilberforce did.