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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Amazing Grace: Fact and Fiction

One of my favorite movies in recent years was the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which is the story of British politician William Wilberforce and his quest to destroy the slave trade. The film is also meant to explain the origins of the popular Christian hymn Amazing Grace, written by John Newton in 1779.

The film is both inspiring and aggravating. I say this because the movie does an excellent job of shedding light on an important historical figure (William Wilberforce), and aggravating because the film omits some important truths.

The film also does an solid job of recreating the Great Britain of the 18th century, including an excellent portrayal of London's contrasting social classes. The film brings to live the stark reality of both 18th century British poverty, its plight in the wake of emerging market capitalism, and its almost complete dependence upon the far wealthier gentry class. 18th century Britain was a world of two extremes: an incredibly wealthy gentry class invested with power, prestige, comfort and education, and the poor masses, ignorant, brutish, and in the infancy of emerging as a stronger class.

Despite these delightful movie recreations, Amazing Grace is deeply saturated with pop culture imagery that distorts the historical record. As Adam Hochschild points out in his article, English Abolition: The Movie, the abolitionist movement to end the slave trade was in no way a solo effort on the part of William Wilberforce. In fact, Wilberforce had a tremendous amount of support for his abolitionist agenda. As the articles states:

In recent decades, however, scholars have seen the history of British abolition as involving far more than Wilberforce's personal virtue. In 1787–1788, during the heady period between the American and French Revolutions, a huge grassroots movement against the slave trade burst into life in Britain, startling abolitionists and slave traders alike… more than 300,000 people refused to buy West Indian sugar. This was the largest consumer boycott the world had yet seen.
To be certain, Wilberforce is a man that is more than deserving of the accolades he has received over the years (and in this movie in particular), however, we should all be mindful that British abolitionism was a movement in which thousands of British citizens felt morally compelled to take action. In fact, the British abolitionist movement was deeply inspired by the Quaker movement. As Hochschild again points out:

The movement was led by an extremely imaginative, hard-working committee of activists, most of them Quakers, who pioneered tactics that are still used by human rights groups today...In addition, Anglican sentiment against the slave trade forced clergy members to adopt a pro-abolitionist stance in their sermons.
In addition, the best-selling memoirs of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who became a powerful voice for abolition in Britain (essentially Britain’s Frederick Douglass) made mention of the Christian imperative to end the slave trade:

“O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African as you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
Any you can see, Wilberforce was FAR from alone in his quest to end slavery in Britain.

Apart from the story on the abolition of the slave trade, Amazing Grace attempts to provide an inspiring tale on the origins of John Newton’s infamous hymn. In the movie, the Reverend John Newton is portrayed as a former heathen, who goes the way of the world by taking part in the transportation of thousands of African slaves to the New World. While in the course of transporting these slaves, Newton allegedly experiences a change of heart, in which he realizes the errors of his ways and devotes the rest of his life to the ministry and a remission for his sins.

While this comes off sounding nice, the truth is actually a bit different. As Adam Hochschild points out:

The reality was quite different. Most inconveniently for sin-and-repentance storytellers, John Newton came to evangelical Christianity before making four transatlantic voyages as a slave-ship officer, not afterward. He left the trade not for reasons of conscience but of health. And when he later was ordained a minister, he had all his savings invested with his former employer, who still had a fleet of slave ships at sea. There is no evidence that he mentioned slavery when Wilberforce first came to see him. Newton said not a word in public against the slave trade until 1788, several years after meeting Wilberforce and more than thirty years after he left the sea; by then a huge mass movement was underway and it was no longer easy for so prominent a former slave trader to avoid taking a stand. He then wrote a forceful pamphlet against the trade, testified twice at hearings, mentioned the subject once or twice in sermons, and otherwise did not openly raise it again for the remaining two decades of his preaching and writing life. He believed that the major evil of the day was blasphemy, which he once called "Our national sin."
So instead of being offered as an atonement for sin, Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace was actually written while the reverend continued to profit from the slave trade.

Though thoroughly entertaining and enlightening to the viewer, Amazing Grace is far from an accurate portrayal of real history. With that said, the film is still worth watching. The story of William Wilberforce is inspiring to say the least. And even if the back story behind John Newton's epic hymn isn't what we would like to envision, the hymn itself is still a timeless classic.

Here is the trailer for Amazing Grace

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