Politics & Policy

Amazing Story

Eric Metaxas on the life of William Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce was a British abolitionist leader member of Parliament in the early 19th century. Largely well-known in limited circles, a new movie out today and book (soon to debut as a New York Times bestseller), both by the title Amazing Grace, hope to change that.

The author of the book, Eric Metaxas, recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is William Wilberforce such a relatively obscure historical figure?

Eric Metaxas: William Who? Oh. Right. You mean the subject of my book, Amazing Grace. Well, it’s complicated. Wilberforce was exceedingly small — about five two — so it can’t be that he was literally overlooked, because Zacchaeus and Napoleon are world-renowned figures. Seriously, I think it has to do with the fact that he was the victim of his own success. What he accomplished he accomplished so thoroughly and so successfully that we completely take it for granted. And I don’t mean abolishing slavery in the British Empire, the grand accomplishment whose bicentennial we are marking with my book and this film, among other things.

Lopez: What do you mean?

Metaxas: Wilberforce practically invented what we would call a social conscience. And we can’t bear the thought that we weren’t always wonderful human beings who always cared for the poor and righted wrongs where we saw them. But we weren’t! Today we argue about how. Conservatives say the private sector should take the lead and liberals say the government should take the lead. But we never ever argue about whether we should try to help the poor and the suffering. It’s something that’s become utterly taken for granted. But we shouldn’t take it for granted, because before Wilberforce and his pioneering efforts in social reform, all of these ideas were quite foreign. Most “enlightened” Europeans and Americans were quite content to let poverty and suffering and inequalities alone, with no moral qualms about it. Wilberforce introduced the foreign notion from Scripture that we must use what we have to bless others — however we do it. That was not a notion that leapt from the noble human breast, but from the pages of Scripture. And to be reminded of it makes us uncomfortable because it’s rather humbling. Social Darwinism comes to us naturally, but social conscience came to us supernaturally, and in many ways via Wilberforce.

Lopez: That’s quite the accomplishment. And what about slavery – that was no small matter.

Metaxas: Well of course history should revere him because he led the monumental and heroic Battle to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire — and inspired and cajoled the rest of the European powers to do the same. He was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden in a day when it was completely unpopular. He was praised by Lincoln and by Frederick Douglass. They saw him as the great man that he was, and we do history a monstrous injustice in not seeing him as they did.

Lopez: Does the movie do him justice?

Metaxas: Considering he was tiny and rather unattractive in real life but in the movie is portrayed by heartthrob Ioan Gruffudd (note: do not pronounce if not Welsh) who is great-looking and towers over even me — who am a giant of five-eight — I would say the movie does him more than justice in some ways. But yes, it does him great justice in other ways, too. It’s wonderful. Of course it can only cover the central battle of his life, for the abolition of the slave trade — but there is honestly so much more, and I hope I’ve done all of that justice in my book, which as luck would have it is available at www.ericmetaxas.com this very minute!

Lopez: Smooth plug, Eric.

What is it about Wilberforce that’s made him such a force in evangelical communities, in particular?

Metaxas: His humility, I think, and his obviously genuine heart for the poor and suffering. He was also indefatigably charming and brilliant and winsome, full of joy and energy and grace. There was no dourness or Pharisaism in him, and he really represented a new model of what it was to take one’s faith in Christ seriously. Everyone in society angled to have him at their parties — though he usually declined. But most everyone saw the love of Christ in him, which is impossible to fake.

Lopez: What brought on Wilberforce’s “Great Change”? Is there some pomposity in capitalizing it so?

Metaxas: The pomposity of the capitalization depends on the typeface. Serif faces are naturally a bit more ponderous. But his Great Change, as he called it, was brought on by a weeks-long carriage ride with a Cambridge supergenius named Isaac Milner. They conversed about the New Testament and at the end of their journey Wilberforce couldn’t ignore what he knew to be true — though he would have liked to. It was all quite painful for him.

Lopez: What was the Clapham Circle? Is there anything like it today?

Metaxas: I’m part of a group called the New Canaan Society, but that’s more of a rhombus, really. It’s hard to say. John Newton had memorized most of Euclid’s Geometry, by the way.

Lopez: Let’s move on. On the topic of Newton: Where does the hymn “Amazing Grace” fit into the story?

Metaxas: John Newton, who was in many ways Wilberforce’s mentor in the faith, wrote the hymn. Newton had been a slaveship captain in his early adulthood, but then became a Christian and eventually gave up the trade entirely and finally became a strong force in helping Wilberforce In abolition, as the movie shows. But Newton’s greatest achievement — greater than writing that world-famous hymn — may have been when he advised the newly converted Wilberforce not to leave politics, but to stay there so that God could use him there. It’s to his endless credit that Newton advised Wilberforce that way at such a crucial moment. One might say that it changed the world — and I do.

Lopez: What is the “wedding ceremony between faith and culture” he performed?

Metaxas: He lifted the Biblical ideas — about loving our neighbors and using our talents and wealth and energy for those who are less fortunate –- into the political and social and cultural realm in a way that caught on and has been with us ever since. It really is monumental in how it has affected the world ever since.

Lopez: You compare Wilberforce to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But did Wilberforce suffer the oppression of tyranny? How can you compare the two?

Metaxas: Solzhenitsyn was also Russian! Does that mean I’m saying Wilberforce was Russian? Nyet! Hath not WFB schooled his editors in logic? I only compare them in terms of their perception by others as a moral giant — and that is apt. And of course both of them used their talents to lift the oppression of others.

Lopez: You write: “Just as most Americans today have never visited a slaughterhouse to investigate the grim details of how large animals become the shrink-wrapped frankfurters in their supermarkets.” Are you comparing your dinner last night to human slavery? Would Wilberforce have?

Metaxas: Nyet and nyet one again. Of course not. One of the problems with my book is that you have to read the sentences consecutively. If you scramble them in a post-modern fashion, like the chapters, of a Julio Cortazar novel, you will lose some of the meaning.

Lopez: I bet I’m the only postmodern hanging out at the Manhattan Institute.

Speaking of: Did I read you right? Do you say that William Wilberforce invented the “Broken Windows” theory? Does the Manhattan Institute — which usually credits James Q. Wilson and George Kelling — know? Does Rudy Giuliani need to grab onto this “Amazing Grace” movement if he wants to win any early primaries?

Metaxas: Any politician that doesn’t know all about Wilberforce — and that doesn’t force his staff to read my book and others on this subject — is out of his mind. I don’t mean literally, as with Ross Perot, but I do mean it would be a terrible mistake, especially at this point in history. Wilberforce is the ultimate politician. Perhaps the greatest politician who ever lived (sic). He was wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. He accomplished more as a legislator than anyone could ever hope to accomplish, and he did it from being principled to the core. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that might not be a bad thing for politicians to study — unless it just scares them too much, which it might.

But in my book I mention Wilson and Kelling and their Atlantic article. But I suspect you knew that and are merely being provocative. You wag! WFB hath schooled thee well.

Lopez: Please don’t blame Bill Buckley for this interview.

Eric, you suggest that he could have been prime minister of Britain. What makes you say so?

Metaxas: Many great historians say it. I’m merely repeating their verdicts.

Lopez: What’s the Wilberforce message for today’s politicians — besides the obvious: slavery, human trafficking, is evil?

Metaxas: One needs a core. If one is merely a “party man” one cannot succeed any more than one who governs by poll or focus groups. Wilberforce was an exceedingly canny politician, and he understood the political process brilliantly — but at the end of the day, he played to a constituency of One. And it needs to be said that he did it with the very greatest humility, not with any sort of moralistic or triumphalist arrogance. He didn’t think that he was God’s vector, to get back to Euclid and others. He knew that he was a sinner, saved by God’s grace. He really knew that and one can see it in how he lived, and how he treated his political opponents, with a disarming and quite extraordinary graciousness.

Lopez: There’s been a lot of talk lately that many on the Right are looking for the next Reagan. Are you looking for the next Wilberforce?

Metaxas: I’m looking for the next big advance from a publisher. Or the first, really. But no, I’m not looking for the next Wilberforce, I’m hoping God’s will will be done however God wants to do it. It’s never the same way twice.

<em>Amazing Grace</em>, by Eric Metaxas



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