On our vacation the last week of August, I finished Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas. (The other book I read was Ourselves: Improving Character and Conscience by Charlotte Mason. Who says summer reading has to be light?)
Metaxas begins his book by establishing the magnitude of Wilberforce’s achievement, which is so important to understand that I must quote him at length (all emphases are mine):
…the ‘disease’ he vanquished forever was actually neither the slave trade nor slavery. Slavery still exists around the world today, in such measure as we can hardly fathom.
What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world.
Included in the old way of seeing things was the idea that the evil of slavery was good. Wilberforce murdered that old way of seeing things, and so the idea that slavery was good died along with it.
Even though slavery continues to exist…the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone. Because the entire mind-set that supported it is gone.”
Though Metaxas here credits Wilberforce alone with this achievement, the book makes clear that Wilberforce was only the most politically visible and vocal part of a large circle of people, most of them evangelical Christians, who worked tirelessly for decades to end the slave trade and make slavery illegal in Britain.
These abolitionists canvassed the country raising awareness of the horrors of the slave trade. In prominent public places, they plastered posters that showed the inhuman conditions in which slaves were transported across the Atlantic. They gave speeches, wrote books and tracts and essays, and commissioned the “image that stopped a thousand ships”: Josiah Wedgwood’s cameo that succinctly and poignantly popularized the antislavery message. And through it all they urged Britons to sign petition after petition demanding an end to this evil.
(I’m also fairly certain they had a marked preference for alliterating the letter P.)
The dogged persistence in the face of indifference—and often outright hostility—that was part and parcel of the abolitionists’ work is most visibly seen in Wilberforce who year after year for 20 years presented his abolition bill to Parliament, only to see it defeated.
Because the slave trade was so horrific—Metaxas includes many first-hand accounts of the brutality with which the slaves were treated, both on the Middle Passage and once they reached the West Indies—and the opposition to its abolition so fierce and vicious, this book could easily have been a total downer. It wasn’t.
Like Wilberforce, who comes to life as a merry man with a large sense of humor, a quick wit, and deep wells of compassion, Metaxas too infuses his narrative with many moments of humor and wit. Though I cried three times while reading this book and felt sick to my stomach several more times, I also laughed. Often. Sometimes out loud.
Dr. Warren…now led the crackerjack medical team for His Majesty, and without benefit of the complicated modern technologies available to doctors today, Warren and his team nonetheless managed to be breathtakingly incompetent.”
Charles Grant was a member of Parliament for Invernessshire [sssic] and a director of the East India Company.”
And my personal favorite:
The erroneous term “Clapham Sect” was most likely coined after Wilberforce’s death, and it is misleading beacause a sect is a group whose theology is somehow deviant from the norm, while the Clapham folks were about as theologically deviant as the Nicene Creed.”
Metaxas’s sense of humor and his quick and witty way with words are a happy and much needed balance to the horror about which he is writing. This humor also aptly reflects Wilberforce’s own ways of dealing with the defeats that could easily have ground him down and made him quit: he kept close to God and his Christian community, and he kept his wits and his sense of humor.
When in 1807 (and on page 211), the abolition bill was finally and overwhelmingly passed, Wilberforce broke down in the House and wept. I broke down on the sofa and wept, too. How Metaxas managed to bring me to that moment with such heightened emotion that I cried even though I already knew what was going to happen, I am not sure. I just know it testifies to great writing.
I wept again a little later when Wilberforce’s beloved sister Sally died. And yet again when Wilberforce himself died. I felt he had somehow become my friend, or at least a much-revered acquaintance, a sense which speaks highly of Metaxas’s ability to make this man, so long dead, come to life again in a real and vivid way.
Amazing Grace is an amazing story about an amazing man surrounded by other amazing men and women, all of them depending on an amazing God to bring their diligent hard work to fruition. And it is the story of how God did just that, through them. Reading it, I was—and am—inspired, awed, and, yes, amazed.
If you’d like to read Amazing Grace for yourself—and I highly recommend you do—why not help stop modern day slavery at the same time? By buying the book through this link (or the one at the top of the page), I’ll receive a small commission on your purchase, which I will donate to International Justice Mission, which works to free people from slavery and restore them to a life of freedom.
Or you could just go to IJM’s website and make a donation.