Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

William Wilberforce was a great man. This book, however, is not a great biography. I’d even go so far as saying it’s a dreadful biography, but I do have to give author Eric Metaxas credit for telling the story of an important man whom I knew little about.

So to give due credit, I will you that Metaxas does a nice job a familiarizing readers with Wilberforce’s life and his dauntless campaign to end slavery, as well as the ways his evangelical Christian faith motivated him in his efforts. Wilberforce was born in 1759 and became a member of Parliament in 1780, when he was only 21 years old. At the time, he was not a particularly religious man, although he had been exposed to and taken an interest in the Methodist movement when he was younger. By the mid-1780s, that interest had been reawakened, and he began reading the Bible and asking serious questions about life and faith. Those questions led him to a conversion experience that initially caused him to consider leaving Parliament. However, friends convinced him that he could do a great deal of good in his current position, so he remained in Parliament and used his position to work to end the slave trade and ultimately slavery itself.

Although I am an ardent believer in the separation of church and state, I have no problem with people letting their faith guide the way they vote and the causes they champion. And on the whole, Wilberforce, as described by Metaxas, is an excellent model for how to do this. His method was to form coalitions of other concerned citizens to get the word out about the truth of the slave trade and to continually and persistently work to change people’s hearts and minds in the hopes that eventually the people and thus the government would make the right choice. Whatever the motivation behind such an effort, it seems like the right way to go about advocating any cause. And it’s nice to see a book that shows the positive impact devout Christians have had on society.

Although Wilberforce is the hero of this particular narrative, Metaxas also acknowledges the significance of such figures as Hannah More, Thomas Clarkson, John Newton, and Olaudah Equiano. And although Wilberforce’s work to end slavery gets the most attention, Metaxas also writes about his efforts to reform English manners, which sounds terribly prudish but feels less so when we understand that this work largely involved ending public drunkenness, prostitution, cruelty to animals, and such. His work to allow missionaries to India is rather more problematic and feels paternalistic to modern readers, but according to Metaxas, it arose out of his desire to end child prostitution and the immolation of widows.

So on balance, I’m a fan of Wilberforce, and I’m glad to have learned so much about him from this biography, yet I find that I cannot say that this is a good biography. In fact, it got on my nerves more times than I can count. It’s just so darned unserious.

Let’s start with the obvious. The book lacks any of the trappings that go with a serious biography. There’s no index and no notes, and the closest thing to a bibliography is a single page in which Metaxas describes some of the books he read in preparing this book. The lack of notes I can reluctantly accept, knowing that this was not intended to be a scholarly work (it was in fact written as a companion to the 2006 film of the same name). But the lack of an index is a problem, especially when the book contains so many names and facts that readers might want to refer to later when they come up again. Still, a good index is an expense, and this is not a scholarly work. Fine. I will heave a big sigh and allow it.

The more serious annoyance has to do with the book’s tone, with which I had two concerns. First, Metaxas likes to pepper the narrative with overworked metaphors, bizarre jokes, and flights of fancy that often seem entirely out of keeping with the topic. For instance, in describing Wilberforce’s friend and mentor Isaac Milner, Metaxas makes a big deal of the man’s girth, making jokes about how the carriage in which Milner and Wilberforce traveled together perhaps tilted comically to one side (Wilberforce was an unusually small man). Then, he describes Milner’s meeting with the young Prince William: “In his broad Yorkshire accent, Milner cooed, ‘Pretty boy, pretty boy,’ all the while stroking the young prince’s head with an odd familiarity. It’s a wonder the royal youth didn’t run bawling from the room, afraid he was about to be consumed.” Thanks for the fat joke there.

My second concern with the tone is more serious. As useful as this book may be as an introduction to Wilberforce’s life, Metaxas appears to have an agenda—to show not just the value, but the superiority of the evangelical Christian worldview. This apparent agenda, together with the lack of notes, damages Metaxas’s credibility, which is the last thing a biographer should want. In describing the religious climate in England at the time, he never seems to miss an opportunity to note how unorthodox and corrupted the Anglican church of the day was. A typical statement reads, “one could attend parish churches all over England … and never be pestered by a sermon that jabbed at the congregation with the sharp tenets of the Nicene Creed.” I don’t doubt the truth of some of his charges, but the language he uses to criticize the church is so severe and so lacking in concrete examples or references to sources from that era that I can’t help but be skeptical. On top of that, there are unnecessary cheap shots taken toward natural selection and Eastern philosophy and the Enlightenment and just about any other worldview conservatives today might disapprove of. It doesn’t help, either, that he assumes his readers are on his side when he makes these statements. This problem is worse in the earlier chapters of the book, which is a good thing because I doubt I would have finished it otherwise. I can only take so much, and the problems with this book were very nearly too much for me. I only persevered through the rough start because the book group I coordinate at church is reading it, and I feel more of an obligation to finish books we’ll be discussing. I’m not sorry I finished it, but I do wish it had been a better book.

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8 Responses to Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

  1. Lisa says:

    It sounds like Wilberforce certainly deserved a better book, and hopefully there are some out there. The lack of sources always frustrates me – then how do we know what the author is saying is based on fact? But I’d guess that if this was a movie tie-in, they didn’t want to overwhelm readers. I’ve been meaning to look for a book about him since the film came out, but I’ll avoid this one, thanks!

    • Teresa says:

      It was often hard for me to work out which statements came from other sources and which came from Metaxas’s own view of the situation (the remark I quoted about the Anglican churches of the time is a good example). So frustrating, and just a little more academic rigor and reference to outside sources would have helped considerably!

      As for other biographies, Metaxas mentions several in his “bibliography.” His top recommendation is for Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte. He also mentions biographies by Garth Lean, John Pollock, Robin Furneaux, and Sir Reginald Coupland. So there’s lots to choose from.

  2. cbjames says:

    From reading your review it sounds like the author is equating today’s evangelicals with those of the 18th century. Is that correct? If he is, I wonder if that’s a mistake. There are similarities in the two movements, but so many differences that I find even giving them both the same label suspect.

    When you mentioned his involvement in ending child prostitution in India as problematic I thought of Dickens who critisized Londoners who spent all their time raising money for overseas charities. There was plenty of child prostitution in England at the time.

    Still, he is a man worthy of a good biography. There must be others. One with an index.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, you’re right, he does seem to equate the two. Although there are similarities, which he discusses in some detail, there are also some pretty significant differences that he elides entirely. Similar complaints have been made about his biography of Bonhoeffer.

      The problematic aspect of his work in India mostly has to do with the paternalistic idea that the Indian people were heathens that needed to be Christianized in order to improve their lives. He was concerned about child prostitution in England as well as in India–or anywhere else he heard of it, I’d imagine.

  3. Yes, I think all in all if I am going to read a book about a serious subject like ending slavery and the struggle to reorganize problems in society, I’d want to read a more scholarly book, and not one which has the flaws you describe in your article. Thanks for the heads-up.

    • Teresa says:

      The tone really seemed wrong for the topic. I can understand wanting to introduce some levity to illustrate Wilberforce’s wit, but it would be better to bring in some of Wilberforce’s own wit.

  4. Jenny says:

    That thing about the Nicene creed doesn’t make sense! I realize that’s not the larger point here, but in the first place, I can’t imagine why a sermon would take up the Nicene creed stuff (that being covered pretty well when they say the Nicene creed at Nicene creed time), and in the second place I have no idea which parts of it could reasonably be described as “sharp”.

    But, leaving that out, what a shame that the book was so lame at being a biography. I am addicted to checking footnotes/endnotes.

    • Teresa says:

      Ah, but reciting the Nicene creed would no doubt just be mindless repetition and therefore pointless. And the unorthodox ministers would find reminders of the virgin birth and the resurrection of the dead, never mind the need for forgiveness of sin, to be sharp and pointed teachings. (At least that’s my guess at Metaxas’s thinking, having known lots of people who thought that way.)

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