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William Wilberforce And Amazing Grace: A Movie About The Past With Present-Day Intentions

March 1, 2007

I ran across this story yesterday, posted at Ignatius Insight. The piece is titled “Wilberforce and the Roots of Freedom,” and its author, Jonathan J. Bean, is a professor at Southern Illinois University.

Normally I don’t engage pre-Civil War history very much at H&E, nor transnational history for that matter. But since films about history (as well as historical films) have arisen here as legitimate topics for exploration, this seemed like a fine candidate for discussion. And this particular production, moreover, has designs on our thinking today. Here are some excerpts from Professor Bean’s article:

– “William Wilberforce is one of the great forgotten men of history. But, all that is about to change as America marks Black History Month with Amazing Grace, the remarkable new film that opened nationwide on February 23rd. Amazing Grace commemorates the bicentennial of the British ban on the slave trade (1807), an antislavery movement led by Wilberforce. Without him, there would have been no end to the slave trade, certainly not in his time. And without his life-changing conversion to Christianity, Wilberforce might have lived a forgettable life as a rich man’s son. Instead, he helped give birth to new freedom in the British Empire, hope in America, and inspiration to abolitionists everywhere. Today, with slavery spreading in Africa and Asia, and according to Amnesty International an estimated 27 million in slavery worldwide, Amazing Grace is more than a period piece: it is a timely and enduring lesson on what one man can do to stop the spread of evil.”
– “For better or worse, Americans inherited both slavery and Christianity from the British. While slavery mocked the rhetoric of our Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), a few people in Britain and America felt passionate about ending slavery.”
– “The fervor of abolitionism came from the New Testament, a body of literature providing the universal principles of natural law to attack slavery. Faith crossed borders and oceans, with Christians in both Britain and America using natural law to first end the slave trade (1807) and then abolish it entirely in the British Empire (1833).”
– “The story really begins in Britain, where an unlikely Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, courageously took up the cause of human emancipation, despite virtually universal opposition. . . . He entered Parliament at age 21 and made friends easily. Five years later, he had a conversion experience leading him to devote his life to freeing those in bondage. In 1791, his bill to abolish the slave trade failed by a wide margin but he persisted. In 1807, Wilberforce released A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade on the eve of Parliament’s overwhelming vote to end the trade in human beings-a remarkable change in fifteen years. In 1823, “God’s politician” began a ten-year campaign to end slavery entirely. . . . Wilberforce died in 1833 just as Parliament abolished slavery. His friend John Newton, once . . . a slave traders, later in life went through a similar “born again” experience and wrote the famous song “Amazing Grace”–hence the title of the movie.”
– “Under Wilberforce’s leadership, the anti-slavery movement in Britain developed tactics similar to those by American abolitionists: speakers on lecture circuits, mass petitions to Congress, distribution of abolitionist tracts, and the use of ‘respectable’ women as advocates. American abolitionists faced greater danger, including the ‘gagging’ of petitions to Congress, the seizure of abolitionist mail in the South, and death threats.”
– “The producers of Amazing Grace hope to stir public opinion against the slave trade through a web site . . . which sponsors the ‘Amazing Change Campaign’ to launch ‘a campaign to abolish modern day slavery and allow children and adults around the world to live in freedom.’ ”

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What grabbed me about Professor Bean’s review were the lines about slavery today, and the last, bulleted excerpt on the Amazing Change Campaign. Before reading this review I was unaware of Amnesty International‘s estimates on present-day slavery (27 million). While there’s little doubt the institution exists today, I wonder how the group defines the term? Does the definition involve pay, such as zero or minimal renumeration? If minimal, what is the pay cutoff? Is it only a question of forced labor? How does Amnesty International arrive at its numbers? How accurate are they? Where are today’s slaves concentrated, in terms of geography? – TL

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