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The power of perseverance: Metaxas’ biography of William Wilberforce


WilberforceReview of Amazing Grace: the story of William Wilberforce and the campaign to end slavery
by Eric Metaxas
Published by Harper One

Historian G. M. Trevelyan describes what occurred on July 31st 1834 in the West Indians: “On the last night of slavery, the negroes in our West Indian islands went up on top the hill-tops to watch the sun rise, bringing them freedom as its first rays struck the waters.” This is the day 800,000 slaves gained their freedom and slavery was abolished.

It’s part of the last page of Eric Metaxas’ book Amazing Grace: the story of William Wilberforce and the campaign to end slavery. It is very illustrative of a book that beautifully combines solid research and wonderful storytelling. Metaxas ends with this picture as it brings to a close what motivated Wilberforce and his friends for more that 40 years. Wilberforce had died the year before, on 29th July 1833, and so missed seeing the ultimate conclusion of his campaign, but was there when the slave trade was formally abolished in the British Parliament on 23rd February 1807. On that day, with the bill guaranteed to pass, and after 20 years of bringing the issue before the British Parliament, Wilberforce was honoured in a speech by Romilly (the Solicitor-General). It was so overwhelming that he sat in Parliament and wept.

Metaxas’ book illuminates many of the key themes of Wilberforce’s life. It outlines his initial two year experience of evangelical Christians and the “Methodists” before turning away from his Christian fervour. We read of his academic journey through Cambridge University and into Parliament as the Member for Hull at just 21 years of age. Wilberforce’s decision to commit to personal faith and a life dedicated to bringing Christian values into public life came after hours of discussion with his friend, the brilliant academic from Cambridge, Isaac Milner as they journeyed across France in a horse drawn chaise. This created enormous tension for Wilberforce as he considered both his wasted life and education to that point and whether he should remain in Parliament.

Metaxas unfolds Wilberforce’s life and story and introduces the greats of faith and history who had contact with Wilberforce—people like John Newton, John Wesley, George Whitfield,  John Thornton, Henry Thornton, Hannah Moore and his good friend who would become the Prime Minster of England at just 24 years of age, William Pitt.

The book demonstrates Wilberforce to be much more that a single issue political campaigner. In fact he recorded his call in his diary on 28th October 1787, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manors.” It is also instructive that Wilberforce was committed to sharing the Gospel message as often as he could and prayed for opportunities for Gospel conversations.

This book does much more than tell Wilberforce’s story. It gives the reader an insight into English society of the 18th Century and demonstrates what can be achieved through the passionate commitment of one individual and his friends. It shows the blindness of people to obvious barbarous oppression and it reminds every reader what a difference faith and belief can make. That difference is not just about personal blessing but community reformation.

Karl Faase is the CEO of Olive Tree Media and Senior Pastor at Gymea Baptist Church.