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Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
Author: Eric Metaxas
Publisher: Harper San Francisco/Harper Collins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022, 2007. Hardcover. 282 p. $21.95.
2007 is a banner year. Slavery was abolished in Great Britain in 1807 and in the 200 years since, the battle is still on. Unfortunately, slavery has gone underground and the fight continues both in impoverished and wealthy countries. What Eric Metaxas has done is to bring us into the life of William Wilberforce, who in the latter 1700’s and early 1800’s was the driving force to eliminate the sale of humans in Great Britain. Wilberforce did not compose the popular hymn, “Amazing Grace,” but was a close friend of former slaver, John Newton, who converted to the cause and wrote this remarkable music.
Eric Metaxas, writing with dry wit, also wrote the popular Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask). He lives in New York City and has earned three Grammy nominations for Best Children’s Recording. Metaxas has also written for “Veggie Tales” and “Rabbit Ear Productions.” The forward for Amazing Grace was written by Floyd Flake, President of Wilberforce University. A film called “Amazing Grace” has been released and stars Ioan Gruffurd as Wilberforce.
William Wilberforce is remembered as being an eloquent, prolific writer plus a memorable orator, perhaps even the best orator (outside of his friend, William Pitt) in England at that time. William came from a wealthy merchant family and throughout his life had adequate income, giving willingly to charities and individuals who needed assistance. The family could trace their roots back to the 12th century. Originally, the last name was Wilberfoss, but was changed for a “forceful” look. During his youth, religion was present in the family but as the Church of England. When William became interested in John Wesley and the Methodist doctrine, there was almost a breach within the Wilberforce family.
After boarding school, William attended Cambridge, and decided at age 21 to run for the House of Commons. With brilliant oratory, he actually won and ended up spending over 40 years there. Friends during this time were William Pitt, who became a young prime minister, John Newton, John Wesley and the English poet William Cowper.
Wilberforce had, what we would call today an “epiphany,” and decided to embrace religion fully. This meant becoming generous with funds and taking up a cause, in this case the buying and selling of human beings. The abolition of slavery in Great Britain became a lifelong struggle, and as detailed in the book, there was one obstacle after another. Just when Wilberforce and his group thought they had a victory in Parliament, along would come a behind-the-scenes compromise and the slavery bill had to wait another year or two or three. Wilberforce and his company became known as the Clapham Sect. One after another either bought or built a home in the area of Clapham and soon this area was known for creativity, politics, the arts and much entertaining.
Wilberforce, not only was a noted oratory who could speak for hours, but a prolific writer. All this from a man just over five feet in height and who, during one illness, weight about seventy pounds. He married Barbara Spooner during his thirties and had six children, including two sons who became ministers. William was afflicted with various ailments throughout his lifetime, but that certainly didn’t stop him from working, to use today’s term, 24/7.
Eric Metaxas is a writer who glows for enthusiasm for William Wilberforce. This is true of writers who do extensive research on a subject. We do get an insightful picture of what Great Britain was like at that time and a view of backroom politics. One had to have endurance when there were no microphones or sound systems and you projected your voice to thousands for hours at a time. What is compelling in this book is the chapter on the ship, Zong, which was a slave ship of that time. A diagram was made privately and then circulated through the country as to how over 400 slaves could be crammed into one ship. This was appalling information, as detailed by Metaxas, and certainly aided the abolitionist cause. Also, noted is the fact that though Wilberforce is known for lifelong work on the issue of slavery, he was also involved with the idea of sending missionaries to India and had to go against the East India Trading Company.
The author leads us through Wilberforce’s life showing the friends, life style, opportunities and faults. There are many anecdotes about personalities of the time, including Queen Caroline and William Pitt. Humor is here when you least expect it, and it brings the man, William Wilberforce, to life in a human way. Here was a man who could examine a problem in all aspects and then explain it to others so they could understand. Truly, a man of the people.
Copyright 2007 Marie Asner