Book Review: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

by Eric Metaxas

Though the name "William Wilberforce" is hardly at the tips of our collective tongues anymore, author Eric Metaxas thinks it should be. In "Amazing Grace," Metaxas relates the story of Wilberforce -- a slight, stooped and sickly man -- whose physical frailty disguised a great strength of character and soul. Wilberforce, as a member of the British Parliament, was (at least according to Metaxas's telling) the driving force behind both the end of the slave trade in the British colonies in 1807 as well as the abolition of British slavery itself in 1833.
The book covers all of Wilberforce's life, from the controversies between Anglicanism and Methodism of his boyhood, through his indolent college days, to his conversion in 1785 at age 24, to his parliamentary career and his death in 1833. Metaxas tells a rousing story of a young man in search for meaning and relevance, in an age of barbarity toward animals, criminals and "lower" races that is shocking to the modern ear. Metaxas sets the stage by discussing animal cruelty -- bull, horse and bear-beating -- that were popular pastimes of the era. His catalog of the evil done to black slaves is chronicled by those who had first-hand familiarity with the infamous Middle Passage or the treatment of slaves on the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Wilberforce's voice is heard through excerpts from his personal diaries, bringing this now-obscure person to life.

I truly enjoyed the book, though with a few reservations. Metaxas's Wilberforce is a man whose worldview would be recognizable to moderns. As a man born of a racist and vicious era, he used his religious views in ways that ran counter to his society. He took seriously the scriptural dictum that humanity is created in God's image, resulting in the inevitable conclusion that people of color deserved the same treatment as whites. A sickly man, he showed great compassion for the poor and the weak, even extending this soft heartedness to animals. Among many other works, Wilberforce was a founding member of the then-named Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The reservations. Metaxas's style is usually staid, punctuated with the occassional tic -- he suddenly gets overly-cute or uses faux-Elizabethan anachronistic turns of phrase. He also tends to give Wilberforce solitary credit for opposing slavery, when this work started long before he appeared on the scene and ended after he left it. Metaxas's evidently sympathetic view of Wilberforce's spiritual life was another problem. In many passages, Metaxas presumes a conservative Christian worldview, lauding Wilberforce for making decisions that are in line with God's will, as though this was self-evident to the reader. Metaxas clearly roots for young Wilberforce to find God, and he speaks from with seeming familiarity with a convert's stages of maturation through during his conversion experience. There's nothing wrong with religious experience, but I found this overt tilt surprising and a bit troubling in a biography. Appallingly, Metaxas describes Anglicanism as a religion practiced in name only by bishops and clergy who no longer believed in its tenets. Metaxas even notes which bishops of the period are "orthodox," as though the reader understands and agrees to his meaning of the word. Metaxas may also be guilty of painting Wilberforce in too-bright colors. His subject's distrust of Roman Catholicism is minimized and his opposition to the right of labor to organize is left unmentioned. Wilberforce is sometimes portrayed as the most eloquent of speakers and other times as having a rather rambling and disconnected style. These inconsistencies and biases diminished the book's impact.

Nevertheless, I do recommend "Amazing Grace". In an age in which the wounds of racism and cruelty are still borne by too many, it is encouraging to read of a man who, though borne to wealth and privilege, put his faith into practice in a way that benefited so many and is still admirable today. "Amazing Grace" makes the strong case that William Wilberforce ought to merit at least a mention when the roll of the history's great humanitarians is read.