Friday, 1 July 2016

Amazing Grace - Book Review

Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
Eric Metaxas, 2008, Authentic Media

I love books and I particularly love biographies.  I find that when I read a biography history comes alive.  As Thomas Chalmers once said ‘all history is biography’.  History is woven in to the lives of people and their story give us a glimpse into history.

There can be few lives more remarkable than William Wilberforce and Eric Metaxas has done the world a great service in writing such an excellent biography of this great social reformer.  Wilberforce, I believe, is a man we should study closely at this juncture in our own history.  Why?  Well firstly because he lived at time of extreme social upheaval as we are experiencing.  As Metaxas says ‘Wilberforce can be pictured as a kind of hinge in the middle of history: he pulled the world around the corner, and we can’t even look back to see where we’ve come from.’  Secondly, Victorian society as Metaxas says: ‘was particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar.’  Slavery was just one of many shocking social ills including child prostitution and labour.  We are seeing a similar descent into coarseness and decadence in our own nation.  But lastly, and perhaps surprisingly for many Christians, much of the the Victorian church was a mere fa├žade of true religion which in turn had a huge impact on its social conscience.  As Metaxas notes: ‘…the outward trappings of religion remained, but robust Christianity, with noble impulses, to care for the suffering and the less fortunate, was gone.’  A little bit like the United Kingdom over the last 60 years, Metaxas says of Victorian Christianity: ‘Religion would be defanged and declawed quietly, not killed in front of mobs.  If, before, the British faith had been like a great and noble lion, it would now become something more like a lapdog that never roared nor dared to bite, that could be fed bits of cheese and petted when one was in the mood to do so.’  So much of Christianity in Britain today is little more than a lapdog that is petted by people as and when they want.  This in turn has led to a retreat from our compassion for the poor and marginalised.

Amazing Grace is a well written account of Wilberforce’s journey from what we might call ‘historical faith’ or ‘nominal Christianity’ to a genuine experience of God.  In twenty-three chapters and three hundred pages Metaxas takes us through the huge ups and downs of Wilberforce’s remarkable life.  Were it not for a decision by young Williams mother, recently widowed and gravely ill, to send him to relatives, he may never have come into contact with true Christianity.  Sent from Hull to his aunt and uncles in Wimbledon at the tender age of eight, he came into contact with a form of Christianity that was very different from the ‘thin gruel and weak tea of High Anglicanism.’  His aunt and uncle were friends with George Whitfield who was used under God as the instrument of the Great Awakening that shook so much of the world out of its spiritual stupor.  More importantly, the young and impressionable Wilberforce met John Newton (‘the old African blasphemer’) who was to have a powerful effect on Wilberforce’s life.  Newton was a frequent visitor to Wimbledon for ‘parlour preaching’ as it was known, and Wilberforce was no stranger to Olney where he visited both Newton and spent many hours with the great hymn writer William Cowper.

Entering Parliament at the tender age of 21 in 1780, and as a friend of William Pitt, Wilberforce was set for a glittering political career.  It is remarkable to think that Wilberforce entered Parliament with such historical figures such as Edmund Burke, Lord North and Charles Fox.  It was a trip to the continent that God used to transform the rising political star.  During the winter of 1874 he took a trip with his former tutor Isaac Milner to France and Italy.  During the trip Wilberforce read The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge.  It started a process in his life that led to a spiritual re-birth.  At that time many described the rise in Methodism as ‘madness’, but after Wilberforce’s family saw the change in his character his mother famously said ‘If this is madness, I hope he will bite us all.’ 

While Wilberforce tried to find his way with his new found faith, he considered withdrawing from public life.  At this time John Newton gave Wilberforce some famous advice: ‘It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and for the good of the nation.’  Pitt similarly advised in a letter to Wilberforce: ‘Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple and lead not to meditation only, but to action.’  Around this time Wilberforce became convinced that he had been given a twofold mission from the Lord: ‘God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Salve Trade and the reformation of manners.’  The rest of his life was given over to these great causes.

We owe a huge debt to Wilberforce.  He was used under God to abolish the iniquitous slave trade and civilise a nation that was in many ways barbaric and inhuman in the way it treated many out with the ruling elite.   As part of the Great Awakening and the rise of Methodism he awakened a corrupt church from its erroneous theology.  The Church of England at the time had huge investments in the West Indian Plantations but saw no contradiction between their theology and their actions.  As Metaxas says ‘It’s hard to avoid the harsh conclusion that the Church of England at the time was little more than a pseudo-Christian purveyor of government-sponsored, institutionalised hypocrisy.’  Worse than hypocrisy was the actual belief that the poor should be left in their God ordained position: ‘Many thought God had ordained the poor’s situation, that it was part of the natural order, and that they should therefore be kept where they were, in their misery.  To help them was tantamount to shaking one’s fist at God.’ Such perverse theology is perhaps never expressed today but is implicit in the lack of activity in some many churches.  Wilberforce’s energy for social reform at home and abroad was simply breath taking.  At one point Wilberforce was linked with 69 separate groups involved with social reform. 

The American artist and inventor Samuel Morse said that Wilberforce’s: ‘whole soul is bent on doing good to his fellow men.  Not a moment of his time is lost.  He is always planning some benevolent scheme, or other, and not only planning but executing…Oh, that men as Mr Wilberforce were more common in this world.’  We can learn a huge amount from Wilberforce and I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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