Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace – the film

This 2007 film is about William Wilberforce, the English politician largely responsible for the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 – 200 years ago.

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William Wilberforce and human rights

This newsletter is about human rights.  In this space we recognize a tenacious fighter for human dignity, William Wilberforce.   In this story, look for the parallels with our own fight.   He saw the need for the public to be informed about his issue in order to gain widespread support and move parliament.  Amazing Grace, the film about him, is recommended, and is now available on DVD.

William Wilberforce was born in Hull, England, in 1759, the only son of a wealthy merchant.  In his youth, an Aunt Hannah influenced him toward evangelical Christianity.

Affluent, still at university, and at the age of 21, he was elected to Parliament in 1780.   He sat as an independent, resolving to be “no party man”.

During a tour of Europe, he experienced an evangelical conversion experience, regretted his past life, and resolved to commit his future life and work to the service of God.  He sought guidance from John Newton, a leading evangelical Anglican clergyman of the day and Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in the City of London.

Other events in 1783 and 1786 influenced Wilberforce so that by May of 1787, compelled by his strong Christian faith, he was persuaded to become leader of the parliamentary Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  Sidelined by recurring bouts of illness, Wilberforce made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons in 1789.

In April 1791, Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade.  After two evenings of debate, the bill was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88.

The following year, in April 1792, Wilberforce again brought a bill calling for abolition.  A compromise by the opposition was passed by 230 to 85 votes, but the compromise was a useless ploy.

This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce’s commitment to the cause of abolition was never to waver, despite the frustration and hostility.  He introduced a motion in favour of abolition during every subsequent session of parliament.  He took every possible opportunity to bring the subject of the slave trade before the Commons, and moved bills for its abolition again and again.

After a war with France, public attitudes towards the slave trade began to shift, and the early years of the nineteenth century saw greater prospects for abolition.

In early 1806 a change of tactics led to new legislation which banned British subjects from participating in the slave trade.  This effectively prohibited two-thirds of the British slave trade.

In 1807 Wilberforce was again re-elected.  A letter he wrote, published in January 1807, formed the basis for the final phase of the campaign.  In February, Lord Grenville introduced an Abolition Bill which was eventually carried by 283 votes to 16.  The Slave Trade Act received royal assent on 25 March 1807, the anniversary recognized this year.

In spite of poor health, Wilber-force continued to campaign against the oppression suffered by the enslaved in British colonies, and to labour for the eventual emancipation of all enslaved Africans.  In 1821, he asked Thomas Fowell Buxton to take over the leadership of the campaign in the Commons.

On 26 July 1833 the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery finally passed its third reading in the Commons, and the news was rushed to the failing Wilberforce.  Three days later he died.

Having earned a place in the hearts of the general public and around the world, William Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey on 3 August 1833.

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.”
Benjamin Franklin — 1706-1790

Amazing Grace – the hymn

John Newton played a part in the story about William Wilberforce.  Newton was the captain of a slave ship, the Greyhound.  As captain for over five years, he knew, first-hand, the conditions in the slave ships during the 15-day voyage from Africa to North America and the West Indies.

In 1748, during a storm which threatened to sink the ship, Newton prayed for deliverance. If such was granted, he promised to devote his life to God and good works.  His ship was saved.

His conversion led to a position as an Anglican priest.  One of his sermons was based on an Old Testament text which fitted into his perspective of his own conversion on the slave ship.

Based on the above, he composed the lyrics of the hymn, Amazing Grace, in 1772.

Newton’s lyrics have become a favourite with Christians largely because the hymn, vividly and briefly, sums up the doctrine of divine grace.  The song has also become known as a favourite with supporters of freedom and human rights because many assume it to be his testimony about his slave-trading past.

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