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Go See Amazing Grace
... or buy the DVD

Amazing Grace, the movie that dramatizes William Wilberforce’s role in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in the early 1800’s, includes the depiction of several meetings of the abolitionists as they discuss the problem and plan their strategies. Pro-lifers will feel right at home: At no time do more than a handful of people show up – usually the same old faces. The good news is that they eventually do get the job done.

Wilberforce and his band of co-belligerents, who disagreed on many matters but were united in their opposition to slavery, were persistent and focused, coming back year after year – in the face of strong political opposition and public indifference – with a bill to outlaw the slave trade.

Many aspects of their struggle as depicted in the movie will be familiar to pro-lifers:

  • While one of the characters encouraged a revolutionary approach, similar to what was happening in France at the time, Wilberforce strongly denounced him and remained loyal to the King and to the supremacy of the law. He used the law to outlaw unjust laws. Likewise, despite the incredible carnage of over 54 million deaths of helpless, innocent preborn babies, pro-lifers have denounced any use of force or illegal activities and have worked tirelessly through legislative measures, education, the political process, compassionate outreach efforts, and first amendment activities to reform the laws.

  • They used a variety of approaches, including a direct challenge in the form of an annual bill to outlaw the slave trade. They also used indirect or gradualist measures. In one instance they were able to pass a bill that on the surface was directed against French shipping, but also created economic hardships for the slave trade.

  • They used the equivalent of the graphic images employed today in the pro-life movement: demonstrations of shackles and visits to slave ships to expose the inhumane conditions. While not pictured in the movie, the movement also produced illustrations, particularly those by poet and painter William Blake that graphically showed torture and lynching of slaves.

  • In one scene, Wilberforce, during a Parliamentary debate, dramatically unrolls a long scroll with hundreds of thousands of signatures of people opposed to the slave trade ... shades of the millions and millions of signatures gathered to dramatize popular opposition to abortion or to place pro-life measures on ballots.

  • The movie shows how they made use of insider accounts by a former slave and the slave-ship captain John Newton that exposed the true nature of the slave trade – until then hidden from British society. Likewise some of the most credible spokesmen for life today are those who have been involved in the abortion industry. And like their counterparts in the modern pro-life movement, the writers and pamphleteers of Wilberforce's era contributed to a thriving publishing industry. William Wilberforce would have appreciated the Internet.

  • As in the pro-life movement, Christianity was at the foundation of the abolitionist movement and the movie shows Wilberforce's own personal commitment to God and includes an explicit and dramatic statement of faith by the Newton character: “Although my memory is fading I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior.”
As others have noted, the performance by Albert Finny who plays John Newton, the former slave-ship captain, author of Amazing Grace, and Wilberforce's own boyhood pastor, is by itself worth the price of admission. And he is in tall grass — all of the actors, particularly those playing William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox, Wilberforce’s wife, and the Duke of Clarance (the King’s son, later a King, and one of the leaders of the opposition), are engaging and enjoyable to watch. And the English countryside, 18th century London cityscapes, sailing ships, and Parliamentary debates never looked better.

Top billing also goes to the hymn itself, as sung by Wilberforce in a club frequented by members of Parliament, then by the congregation at his wedding, and a final rendition by a regimental bagpipe band in the shadows of Westminster Abbey, where are buried both Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce’s indispensable partner in politics and in ending the slave trade.

While it makes its ideological and historical points, Amazing Grace succeeds mainly as good storytelling – with its wonderful scenery, flashbacks, the ensemble of British actors who create memorable and believable characters, quick-paced and often humorous dialogue, dramatic and entertaining parliamentary debates, the ups and downs of Wilberforce’s political struggles, his difficult health problems, his courtship and marriage, and the exploration of his friendships and alliances, particularly with William Pitt and John Newton.

Don’t be surprised if you’re moved to tears not once but several times, or if you feel like singing along with the hymn, or standing and applauding when the final vote outlawing the slave trade is counted ... Go ahead and do it!

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[Listen to The Gordon Highlanders version of "Amazing Grace".]