Slavery, William Wilberforce and the Film “Amazing Grace”

The transatlantic trade in slavery was outlawed 200 years ago. This anniversary is marked by the release of Amazing Grace,em> a feature film about abolitionist William Wilberforce. Byron Barlowe argues that his life is an exemplar of how God can use faith, moral bravery along with biblical thinking and long-term action—even against tough odds—to transform culture for good.

You may have caught the buzz surrounding the film Amazing Grace, still in theaters nationwide at this writing. It premiered just in time to celebrate the anti-slavery campaign led by William Wilberforce, which outlawed{1} transatlantic slavery 200 years ago.

Culturally active Christians, especially, hail the film as a refreshingly well-done cinematic rendering of a historical hero that will be worth viewing and, if you’re so inclined, owning. Wilberforce’s story is an exemplar of how God can use faith, moral bravery along with biblical thinking and long-term action to transform culture for good.

Slavery then & now

The term “slavery” usually evokes images of forced-émigrés from Africa in the American South from the advent of the American colonies. Yet, slavery in some form is a feature of life in much of the world’s history and may be more rampant today than ever before. From indentured servants who willingly pledged submission to their masters to those bought and sold as property—as in the American and British systems—to those held in present-day fear and financial bondage right under our modern noses, slavery is simply a hard fact.

According to Probe writer Rusty Wright, the 18th Century British slave trade “was legal, lucrative, and brutal.”{2} Altering that reality was a life-cause for Wilberforce and his abolitionist brethren.

This was not always the sentiment among Christians, going back to the early Church. Although their ancient slavery was often more benign than in Wilberforce’s day, it surprises many to discover that such notables as Polycarp (Bishop of Smyrna), Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras (Second Century Christian philosopher), and Origen held to slavery as a God-given right. Later Church luminaries such as St. Bonaventure agreed. Pope Paul III even granted the right of clergy to own slaves.{3}

Latin America’s pre-Columbian slave-based culture was prodigious, but how much does one hear of this or the claim that the Church ended it? Author Nancy Pearcey tells of a Mexican man [who] spoke from the audience at a recent conference:

My ancestors were the Aztecs. We were the biggest slave traders, and the slaves were used for human sacrifice—to make the sun rise each day! Our Aztec priests ripped out the beating hearts from living slaves who were sacrificed in our temples….

I don’t like it. I am not proud of it…. It is part of our history. We have to face up to it.

Pointing out the unique ameliorative influence of the Christian faith as contrasted with Islam, he added:

And the slavery and human sacrifice in Mexico only stopped when Christianity came and brought it to an end. That is the fact of history. When are the Arabs going to face up to the facts of their own history, and to what is going on in many Muslim countries today? When are they going to rise up like the Christians to bring this slavery in their own countries to an end?{4}

Using the film as a launching pad, present-day abolitionist groups continue a campaign to publicize and eradicate modern-day slavery. According to World magazine, “today 27 million people live on in captivity, their lives worth far less than any colonial era slave.”{5} “About 17,000 are trafficked annually in the United States.”{6}

Relative to the chattel slaves of Wilberforce’s day, for which owners paid heavy prices and held title deeds, today’s illegally held human “property” comes cheap—and blends in. Most are in debt bondage, some are contract laborers living under harsh conditions, and others are forced into marriage and prostitution. “Human trafficking, which ensnares 600,000 to 800,000 people a year, is the newest slave trade and the world’s third-largest criminal business after drugs and arms dealing.”{7}

Contemporary abolitionist, hands-on human rights campaigner, member of the British House of Lords and professed follower of Christ, the Baroness Caroline Cox points out that obliteration of the white slave trade lends hope to modern-day campaigns. “There have been many slaveries, but there has been only one abolition, which eventually shattered even the rooted and ramified slave systems of the Old World.”{8}

An “alliance of modern Wilberforces” includes “lawmakers, clergy, layers, bureaucrats, missionaries, social workers, and even reclusive Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz,” who bankrolled the film Amazing Grace.{9} They seek to repeat Wilberforce’s success.

Opposition in Wilberforce’s day

Wilberforce and his compatriots faced an entrenched pro-slavery culture. “…The entire worldview of the British Empire was what we today call social Darwinism. The rich and the powerful preyed on and abused the poor and the weak.”{10}

The British royal family sanctioned slavery. The great military hero of the day, Admiral Lord Nelson, denounced “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.”{11}

Once again, the religious climate of the day tolerated institutionalized evil. In a chapter entitled “Slavery Abolished: A Christian Achievement” in his sweeping book How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin J. Schmidt writes, “A London church council decision of 1102, which had outlawed slavery and the slave trade{12}, was ignored.” Schmidt continues regarding religious hypocrisy, that the “revival of slavery” in Wilberforce’s time in Britain, Spain, Portugal and their colonies “…was lamentable because this time it was implemented by countries whose proponents of slavery commonly identified themselves as Christians, whereas during the African and Greco-Roman eras, slavery was the product of pagans.”{13}

Most compellingly, Wilberforce’s convictions put his own welfare at risk. Twice, West Indian sea captains threatened Wilberforce’s life.{14} This campaign was not a casual cause célèbre to him.

Wilberforce biographer Eric Metaxas states:

…The moral and social behavior of the entire culture…was hopelessly brutal, violent, selfish, and vulgar. He hoped to restore civility and Christian values to British society, because he knew that only then would the poor be lifted out of their misery.

Wilberforce’s Secret: learn to disagree agreeably{15}

It has been fashionable, on occasion, to lionize William Wilberforce to the point of exaggeration. However, we can legitimately extract godly, courageous and wise principles from his life’s story.

Holding fast to a distinctively biblical worldview will often come smack into conflict with the most cherished societal sins of one’s day. It was slavery then, you name the issue today: abortion, gluttony, gambling, pornography, human trafficking. Yet, many a well-meaning activist has fallen prey to a crass loss of civility in the long battle to turn the tide of public opinion and policy.

Metaxas contrasts:

Wilberforce understood the Scripture about being wise as serpents and gentle as doves. He was a very wise man who worked with those from other views to further the causes God had called him to. Because of the depth of his faith, Wilberforce was a genuinely humble man who treated his enemies with grace—and of course that had great practical results.

Just as Cambridge professor Isaac Milner, his mentor to faith in Christ, had once stood against Wilberforce’s skepticism agreeably, so he learned to do politically. He was relevant, shrewd, yet genuine. “Wilberforce wasn’t full of pious platitudes. He really had the ability to translate the things of God in a way that people could really hear what he was saying,” Metaxas says.

Even privately, his actions forcefully, yet humbly, disagreed with prevailing cultural winds. Metaxas describes his serious conviction to spend significant time raising his six children, certainly uncommon for fathers in his day. One lasting result: “because of his fame [this] set the fashion with regard to family togetherness and being together on Sundays that lasted far into the 19th and even 20th centuries.”

The Christian worldview drove Wilberforce and his predecessors to oppose slavery and its effects

Wilberforce gained a reputation as a man of faith. Sir Walter Scott credited Wilberforce with being a spiritual leader among Parliamentarians. Biographer John Stoughton wrote that his effectiveness as speaker was greatest when he “appealed to the Christian consciences of Englishmen.”{16} Nonetheless, Wilberforce was his own biggest proponent of his need for grace.

The doctrines of sola fide (“by faith alone”) and sola gratia (“by grace alone”) formed the foundation of Wilberforce’s theology, or how he viewed God and His relation to the world. Metaxas relates, “He really knew that he was as wicked a sinner as the worst slave trader—without that sense of one’s own sinfulness, it’s very easy to become a moralizing Pharisee.”

Author and pastor John Piper writes:

…The doctrine of justification is essential to right living—and that includes political living…. [The “Nominal Christians” or Christians in name only, of Wilberforce’s day] got things backward: First they strived for moral uplift, and then appealed to God for approval. That is not the Christian gospel. And it will not transform a nation. It would not sustain a politician through 11 parliamentary defeats over 20 years of vitriolic opposition.{17}

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”{18} Sometimes it takes 20 years or much longer for the Spirit to move an entire culture! God is patient and works with our free wills, but accomplishes His purposes in the end.

Paul wrote several other times in Scripture regarding slavery. He told Philemon to treat his own slave as a brother. That is, lose the slave, gain a spiritual brother.

To the church in Galatia, Paul wrote that there was “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”{19} The status of slave was subsumed under the category of believer, where all are equal. “…Given the culturally ingrained practice of slavery…in the ancient world, Paul’s words were revolutionary. The Philemon and Galatians passages laid the groundwork for the abolition of slavery, then and for the future.”{20}

Anti-Slavery positions were commonplace in the Early Church. Slaves worshiped and communed with Christians at the same altar. Christians often freed slaves, even redeemed the slaves of others{21} (much like contemporary believers who buy freedom for Sudanese slaves). This equal treatment of slaves sometimes set Christians up as targets of persecution.{22}

Christianity is no stranger to abolition throughout history. Schmidt writes:

…The effort to remove slavery, whether it was Wilberforce in Britain or the abolitionists in America, was not a new phenomenon in Christianity. Nor were the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American civil rights laws of the 1960s to remove racial segregation new to the Christian ethic. They were merely efforts to restore Christian practices that were already in existence in Christianity’s primal days.{23}

The film Blood Diamond graphically portrays child soldiers brutally manipulated to do the killing for a rebel group in Africa, an actual contemporary tragedy. In the story’s only bright spot, a gentle, fatherly African offers an apologetic for his work to rescue and rehabilitate boy warriors. The message is straightforward: do what you can in the moral morass, for “who knows which path leads to God?”

Wilberforce found the path—the Way, the Truth and the Life{24}—and it continues to light the way for people in bondage today. But it’s only just begun, once again.


1. The 1807 Act of Parliament outlawed the trade in the British Empire. In fact, the trade continued among other nations and illegally among British outlaws.
2. “Amazing Grace Movie: Lessons for Today’s Politicians,” by Rusty Wright,, accessed 3-22-07.
3. “Slavery Abolished: A Christian Achievement,” chapter 11, in How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin J. Schmidt, 276. Note: read further for examples of early Church Fathers and laypeople who opposed slavery and aided slaves.
4. From an email report entitled “Slavery and Its History,” sent on behalf of author Nancey Pearcey to list 12/11/06.
5. World, Feb. 24, 2007, “Let my people go,” by Priya Abraham,, accessed 3-21-07.
6. “Free at Last: how Christians worldwide are sabotaging the modern slave trade,” Deann Alford, Christianity Today, March 2007, p. 32.
7. World, Abraham.
8. Ibid, “Whale of a man” (article sidebar). Quote from This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the 21st Century (Monarch Books, 2006), “a 175-page textbook, in a sense, featuring the history, the politics, the economics, and the present-day reality of forced servitude around the world” according to World. Co-written with Cox by John Marks, a human-rights advocate, researcher who advocates for slaves regularly with Cox.
9. Alford, Christianity Today, p 32.
10. “Doing good and helping the poor,” interview with Wilberforce biographer Eric Metaxas, World, Feb. 24, 2007:, accessed 3-22-07.
11. Wright, accessed 3-21-07.
12. “The legal force of the event is actually open to question. The Council of Westminster (a collection of nobles) held in London issued a decree: ‘Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.’ However, the Council had no legislative powers, and no Act of law was valid unless signed by the Monarch.” From Wikipedia entry, “History of Slavery,”, accessed 3-23-07.
13. Schmidt, 276.
14. World, Metaxas interview, accessed 3-22-07
15. Ibid, entire section.
16. Schmidt, 277.
17. “Joy in the battle: Abolition and the roots of public justice,” John Piper, World, Feb. 24, 2007,, accessed 3-22-07.
18. 2 Corinthians 3:17
19. Galatians 3:28
20. Schmidt, 273.
21. Ibid, 274.
22. Ibid, 289.
23. Ibid, 290.
24. John 14:6

© 2007 Probe Ministries