William Wilberforce, a Biography/Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

By Paz, Denis | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2008 | Go to article overview

William Wilberforce, a Biography/Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery


Paz, Denis, Anglican and Episcopal History


William Wilberforce, a Biography. By Stephen Tomkins. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2007, Pp. 238. $18.00.)

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. By Eric Metaxas. (New York: HarperSanFranscisco, 2007, Pp. xix, 283. $21.95.)

These publications mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. The Briton Stephen Tomkins appears in London newspapers and an online humor magazine, and has published popular surveys of Christian history, John Wesley, and St. Paul. The American Eric Metaxas has written children's books, scripts for children's television programs, and opinion pieces in several prominent newspapers and magazines. Their intent is to introduce William Wilberforce, one of the chief advocates for the abolition cause and the primary leader of the campaign to legislate against the trade, to the general reading audience.

Their books are similar, often using the same episodes and telling quotations. Both write from an evangelical perspective. But there are differences. Metaxas's book accompanies the film Amazing Grace. He confined his researches to several standard biographies. Lacking an index, his book is difficult to use. He demonizes Wilberforce's opponents (something that Wilberforce himself never did). In contrast, Tomkins read more secondary accounts and consulted primary sources. The result is a book that provides more context, understands late eighteenth-century history better, and is more balanced than Metaxas's.

Metaxas sets his tone by claiming that the pro-slavery Prime Minister Melbourne said "Things have come to a pretty pass when one should permit one's religion to invade public life." He condemns the minister harshly: "For this lapidary inanity, the jeers and catcalls and raspberries and howling laughter of history . . . will echo forever" (xix). Unfortunately for Metaxas, what Melbourne really said was that religion should not invade private life. Less serious errors include misdating William and Mary's accession to the throne (81) and confusing Jacobite and Jacobin (189).

Metaxas elevates Wilberforce into a divinely guided Moses who accomplished "a fundamental .. . shift in human consciousness" (xv). "God opened his eyes and showed him another world" (xvi). "[O] ne man led us ... to that golden doorway, and then guided us ... to a world we hadn't known could exist" (xix). Therefore "Wilberforce was simply the greatest social reformer in the history of the world" (xvii).

Metaxas claims that John Newton "surely" exposed the ten-year-old Wilberforce to the evils of the slave trade (10) in 1769, but offers no proof. …

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