Rarely have I seen a movie that moved me the way Amazing Grace did last evening. The new film, which opened across America on Friday, is the story of the life-long struggle of William Wilberforce to end slavery and reform British society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The movie should compel Christians to understand how culture can be truly altered by incrementalism, deep faith, sheer perseverance, and quite often with great personal sacrifice.
When the anti-slavery movement began in earnest in the late 18th century almost every leader in the British Empire embraced the retention of slavery on economic and, in some cases, so-called “Christian” grounds. One of the chief influences against the horrible institution was John Newton, the evangelical Anglican clergyman who wrote the world best-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” thus the title of this new movie. Newton had been a “slaver” himself and thus knew well what happened to the Africans who were sold into slavery. After his conversion Newton lived with the nightmare of 20,000 African souls perishing through his own complicity and consistently opposed the grim sale of human people. He not only preached the gospel, as a faithful evangelical minister, but resolutely opposed slavery to his last breath. The young Wilberforce had sat under Newton’s gospel ministry and had adopted his stance against slavery as a very young MP. Wilberforce then forged a deep and lifelong friendship with William Pitt, who later became prime minister. It was Pitt who often helped Wilberforce in his efforts, though at times Pitt wavered in his own resolve when Britain faced possible revolution after the American and French Revolutions. The great wisdom of Wilberforce was to resist the short-cut of revolution, both in rhetoric and reality, and to do so with an abiding determination to end slavery without bloodshed. As a result of his determined efforts Britain was spared the terrible conflict that plagued America from 1861-1865. In this case one man did make a huge difference!
This movie provides moving portraits of John Newton, William Wilberforce, William Pitt and even Wilberforce’s wife, among many others of that era who played major roles in these dark times. This film grips the heart, moves the soul, and deeply and profoundly impressed upon me the need for true reformers in our time, men and women who have both the spiritual depth and the moral courage to wisely oppose evils that plague our modern societies. We too soon forget that slavery still exists, in the form of female prostitution. We also forget that Africa still faces major crises that bring about the death of millions every single year, including Muslim attacks upon whole people groups in the Sudan and the ravaging scourge of HIV/AIDS that wipes out multitudes every day.
Some have said Amazing Grace does not present the gospel and thus fails to tell our story. Don’t believe it. The Four Spiritual Laws are not presented, as if this is the only way to tell the gospel, but the message is there in a powerful way. Amazing Grace will inspire you. Hopefully it will also move you to act on your conscience to support every cause that advances justice and reform in society and throughout the world. As I left the theater I thought of many modern reformers but the contributions of Bono were particularly brought to my mind as I prayed and thought about those who persist in making major efforts for justice and Christian concern in our day, just as Wilberforce did in his time. I can’t help but think that far too many conservative Christians are sleeping through a time that calls for radical sacrifice on our part. Maybe this movie will stir minds and hearts. I pray so. See it as soon as possible.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."