That book is Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas (Harper One, 2007). It’s the story of the horrific African slave trade, and the institution of slavery throughout the British empire, and one man’s epic 20+-year battle to abolish both.
Over the years, I had read and heard a great deal about slavery, starting with the enslavement of the children of Israel by the ancient Egyptians, as described in the Bible’s book of Exodus. And of course you can hardly grow up in America without hearing many accounts of the institution’s abominations in the South.
But earlier this year, I learned a great deal more from Jonathan Aitken’s stunning biography John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Crossway, 2007). Then, to further my education, Maranatha Baptist University’s Dr. David Saxon and his wife Jamie recommended that I read this Wilberforce biography.
After sketching out the content of the book for me, Jamie Saxon added an irresistible incentive: “You’ll love his writing.” And indeed, my review of this book really has to start with a mention of the extraordinary writing of Eric Metaxas.
I always mark up my books, but normally only to highlight important facts. Not this time: At least half of my mark-ups are to call attention to particularly elegant language, or especially poignant observations, or even the author’s wonderful sense of humor (amazingly, there’s plenty to laugh about even in this dead-serious book about the abolition of slavery – more proof of Metaxas’s unique gift, I suppose). You’ll find just a few examples of his skill in the excerpts below.
So, in a nutshell, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a brilliant and wealthy British politician and Member of Parliament who spent the first years of his career as a party animal; became a born-again Christian in his mid-20s; and eventually, having heard about the ghastly ways that African slaves were treated during and after their transport to the New World, embraced the cause of abolition.
Metaxas’s account of Wilberforce’s conversion to Christ is alone worth the price of the book. What Wilberforce would later call his “Great Change” didn’t happen overnight. But it seems that a key event in this process was a horse-drawn chaise trip he and his equally brilliant friend Isaac Milner took from Nice to Calais, over 1200 miles of winding, unpaved roads in heavy snowfall. To occupy themselves, they read and discussed Philip Doddridge’s 1745 book The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Writes Metaxas of this journey:
“The extraordinary felicity of this scene, of these incandescent minds meeting on this subject of eternal things, sailing in their horse-drawn coach through the mountains, seems like something out of a fairytale, one in which a gnome and a giant on a journey in a sphere of glass and silver discover the Well at the World’s End, and drinking a draught therefrom learn the secret meaning at the heart of the universe.” (pp. 47-48)
It was this journey that apparently changed Wilberforce’s heart once and for all:
“Anyone who had been privy to his thoughts at this time would have wondered what had happened to the gay, carefree fellow of just a few months before -- the one … who had thought nothing of shaving the truth here and there during his speech in the castle yard at York to ‘tear the enemy to pieces’ and elevate himself to the highest parliamentary place in the land; who ate and drank and danced and sang till the wee hours of hundreds of mornings. Where had that fellow gone?” (p 49)
It’s uncertain exactly how this new creature in Christ first came to make the abolition movement his life’s work. Ex-slave-trader, beloved pastor and “Amazing Grace” author John Newton was a family friend, and no doubt his conversation had something to do with it. And along the way, Wilberforce also befriended a number of other folks who would play key roles in his campaign.
It’s possible that Wilberforce’s attention was first arrested by the accounts he heard and read of “the Middle Passage” – the second leg of slave ships’ trip from England to Africa, Africa to the New World, and then home to England again. It was in Africa that the English traders kidnapped men, women and children, often with the help of local chieftains, and packed them into ships without regard to their health or comfort.
The conditions were unimaginably awful: overcrowding so excessive that in some cases the captives were piled on top of each other; no fresh air; suffocating heat; and relentless stench. Many died outright during the ensuing weeks, before being unloaded on the other side of the Atlantic. And in at least one case known as the Zong Incident, 131 sick and even relatively healthy slaves were simply tossed overboard into the ocean to drown or be devoured by sharks. The reason: the captain would be rewarded for his work by the value of his cargo at auction, and sick slaves didn’t fetch much; but dead slaves were covered in full by insurance.
Metaxas quotes extensively from some of the first-person accounts of the atrocities. I won’t repeat any of them here. I can’t. You must read them yourself. Try not to weep.
But it must have been such accounts that transformed Wilberforce and his companions into passionate enemies of slavery. And thanks in part to their zealous efforts to capture the hearts of British citizens, the abolition movement gained strength throughout England in the last quarter of the 18th century.
It’s important to recognize the spiritual nature of this movement. As the author notes, “The acutely Christian character of the British abolitionist movement is undeniable, for its leaders were all consciously acting out of the principles of their deeply held faith.” (p 96)
Yet some of abolition’s enemies claimed to be Christians, too. Metaxas comments: “For this the leaders of the Church of England, not merely the people in its pews, were to blame. The Church of England at the time had a great deal of money invested in West Indian plantations and did not make any connection between the tenets of the Christian faith and abolition. Making that connection fell to outsiders – to the Methodists and other so-called Dissenters, such as the Quakers and Moravians.” (p 96)
(An aside: the author’s discussions of England’s “retreat from serious Christian faith” in the 18th century is one of the fascinating subplots in this book.)
At any rate, Wilberforce became convinced that he must lead the charge against the slave trade in Parliament. For “if, as [he] thought, God Himself was calling him to this task and he shrank from it, God too could find another to do it, and surely would.” (p 113)
It was a highly complicated, heart-wrenching and endlessly frustrating era for Wilberforce, and it involved domestic and international political machinations that would surprise even the careful observer of 21st century American politics. It consumed him for over two decades, robbing him of his peace and his health as he approached Parliamentary victory again and again, only to suffer defeat after debilitating defeat.
Wilberforce received a great deal of encouragement along the way, however. For example, in perhaps the last letter he ever penned, just a few days before his death, John Wesley wrote to Wilberforce. He said, in part, “…if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
Metaxas’s comment on this letter: “What an encouragement it must have been to read these words from the battle-scarred veteran, who had fought the good fight, and run with patience the race, and had kept the faith … And so William Wilberforce now ran, cheered on by a great and growing cloud of witnesses.” (p 145)
Wesley’s last epistle arrived in February, 1791. It would be almost exactly 16 years later, in 1807, that the battle would finally be won, with abolition secured in Parliament by a resounding vote of 283-16.
Throughout the painfully long proceedings, Metaxas reports, Wilberforce “had sat composed, quite composed.” But when the final vote was tallied, and the rejoicing began, “he was overcome, and taking his head in his hands, he wept.” (p 210)
As we watch the celebration unfold, the reader rejoices with the author, and very belatedly, with all those who made this victory possible. It was over! Surely the work was only beginning, but the strongest enemy had been defeated! Hallelujah!
But wait: “Let’s not run ahead just yet,” Metaxas says. “Let’s behold [Wilberforce] here for a little while longer, here in this Moment of moments, a man allowed that highest and rarest privilege, to be awake inside his own dream. Seated there, head in his hands, humbled and exalted in his humility, we have the apotheosis of William Wilberforce.” (p 211)
And there’s more. Oh, so much more! But my review is already way too long. You simply must read this book. Don’t delay. Read To the Golden Shore, too, and then you can decide for yourself which one is more life-changing.
In the meantime, I have to run and order another book by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer, perhaps, or maybe Martin Luther ...