Heroes for the Books: William Wilberforce

By Thursday, March 26, 2015 , ,

Welcome to the first installment in a new blog post series! “Heroes for the Books” will spotlight biographies about people worthy of notice. We all need heroes to emulate, and recently, I’ve discovered and re-discovered some who deserve to have their stories told and retold many times over.

For this first post, I present to you Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas. It was released at the same time as the Wilberforce-inspired movie of the same title. I saw the film when I was young and have recommended it ever since; the story of how this Parliament member worked tirelessly for justice inspired me instantly. But Eric Metaxas is a truly gifted, eloquent, and relational writer, and his book brings Wilberforce to life in vibrant new ways. Here are a few aspects of Wilberforce to which Metaxas’ book calls admiration.

1) The magnitude of Wilberforce’s accomplishments
William Wilberforce’s name is forever tied to the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and though people rightly admire him for that success, fewer realize what a feat it was at the time. Amazing Grace masterfully brings to light that Wilberforce was not only the power behind abolishing the slave trade; he became the center of a movement to abolish a way of life and national mindset. Slavery was not only accepted in 18th century England; it was the everyday routine and God’s ordained order, according to the vast majority. Additionally, England was then steeped in crime and immorality, also standard procedures of the day. Not quite the picture that arises when we think of the proud, beautiful, history-rich country we now know, right? Well, on many levels, we have Wilberforce to thank for that, and Amazing Grace gives stunning evidence to how wide his influence reached and still reaches today. He once famously penned, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners.” His work to reform “manners,” or what we might now call “customs” or “acceptable behavior,” was instrumental in changing the populace’s mindset toward slavery. Amazing Grace shows that for the people to see the evil of slavery, they also had to change their attitudes toward care for the poor, general morality, and much more. And William Wilberforce’s work to effect these changes that led to his success in abolition were truly remarkable and have lasting impact today. Now, we can’t imagine a wealthy country without organizations devoted to helping the less fortunate, but this was unheard of just 250-300 years ago. Eric Metaxas brings his reader face-to-face with Wilberforce’s truly mind-blowing successes in so many areas of life that needed change, and you can do nothing but marvel.

2) Wilberforce was a regular person
People like William Wilberforce can seem “out there.” Maybe it’s someone else for you. Perhaps a famous speaker, author, filmmaker, actor, or another historical figure. The possibilities are quite numerous. But when you read a biography of someone who accomplished as much as Wilberforce, it’s easy to feel like less of a human and wonder what on earth you’re doing with your life. But I liked how Eric Metaxas took care to present Wilberforce’s humanness. Certainly, he was uniquely gifted and took on a large task, but as I read Amazing Grace, I realized William Wilberforce was quite normal too. He simply used his gifts and took advantage of the position and resources that were in front of him to make a difference. But he was quirky, credited other people with influencing him, and faced many challenges, just like the rest of us. Many chapters of Amazing Grace actually had me laughing and thinking that Wilberforce could be a pretty entertaining dinner guest. He was apparently known for his eloquence and wit, and you can definitely tell from many of his letters and speeches! The book also gives information on his multiple health problems, including bad vision and a stomach condition. Not only does knowing this increase admiration for his strength and determination, but it also helps you realize that he was indeed human. He just didn’t let the challenges overpower him.

3) Wilberforce’s perseverance
It’s difficult to convey in a two-hour movie how long, arduous, and discouraging the process was to abolish the slave trade for Wilberforce and his friends. Thus, this is one point on which Amazing Grace the book certainly picks up the slack for the movie. Not only was Wilberforce’s health often a deterrent, but he also faced unspeakable resistance from political opponents and the social climate. The book gives a glimpse of how hostile the process was; verbal abuse, death threats, and false accusations were all part of it. As I read, there were times that I thought the abolitionists probably would have been justified in giving up the fight. Clearly, neither Wilberforce nor any of his supporters had any idea how tedious the journey would be. Wilberforce first presented an abolition bill to Parliament in 1789, but not until 1807 did it finally pass. And remarkably, he didn’t stop there. Amazing Grace stresses his constant search to bring reform wherever he saw need. Once abolition passed, he worked for emancipation of slaves, as well as for changes in education, helping the poor, and many other areas. His dedication is scarcely to be comprehended, and we owe much to it today.

I honestly cannot recommend Amazing Grace highly enough. When I read it, William Wilberforce was no longer a distant, mysterious superhuman. He became an ordinary man who was simply called to an extraordinary task and rose to it in ways that are truly inspiring. Eric Metaxas' writing style is engaging and enjoyable, and his research is thorough and fascinating. For more details on the book and other great reviews, you can find it on the ever-trusty Amazon. Enjoy!

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