Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas - book review
Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007. 277pp.
Eric Metaxas is the author of the acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, which was named “Book of the Year” by the ECPA. Bonhoeffer has also appeared on numerous “Best of the Year” lists and have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, The New Republic, Harper’s, Kirkus (starred review), NPR, FoxNews, C-SPAN’s Book TV, Christianity Today, The Weekly Standard, and First Things. Metaxas is the 2011 recipient of the Canterbury Medal awarded by the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom. Although originally known for his children’s books, Metaxas has made a considerable impact in the realm of biography in his more recent writing.
The full title of this first major biography by Metaxas expresses the book’s thesis: William Wilberforce led the heroic campaign to end slavery. Immediately this title seems to give an impression the author may not have intended. Did Wilberforce help end all slavery, or only the certain forms of British slavery? It would appear the latter, but this title cannot be faulted unless one would suggest re-introducing those days when the titles of books were almost as long as the first chapter. The title of the book further insinuates that Wilberforce’s efforts were beyond a passive work toward this goal, but went above and beyond others to achieve his purpose. This, in fact, is exactly what Metaxas shows to be the case.
The biography begins with an introduction that might rattle the cage of any historian in the audience. On the first page of this introduction he states that because of Wilberforce and what he accomplished, “the end of slavery seems inevitable” in the modern world. This seems to be a naive statement when one considers the mass slavery still practiced in the middle-east, Africa, and many Island countries, not to mention the sex slaves sold in Europe and North America where slavery has legally been outlawed. The author continues in a good amount of overstatement in the introduction when he claims that Wilberforce “vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia” (xv). It would seem that the millions of slaves on earth today would say differently, not to mention the concept of Darwinian Evolution that assumes lower forms of human life- having seen the natural outworking of this idea in the persons of Hitler and Stalin.
Despite the hyperbole and overstatements throughout the introduction, Metaxas seems to be most concerned with introducing a man to whom so much is owed in the Western World and yet of which so little is known. Considering his accomplishments, it is truly curious that such a man would need a new biography in order for people to even know who he was and what he did.
After introducing Wilberforce’s early years in Hull in chapter 1, he begins to describe the time he spent at Cambridge (chapter 2), and then his entrance into Parliament (chapter 3). The following chapter explains how he came to faith, and then chapter 5 describes how he dealt with this change in his life. The reader finds that it was in the childhood mentor John Newton that Wilberforce found the advice to stay in Parliament and do God’s work there. This thrilled Wilberforce’s friend William Pitt who was Prime Minister of the country at that time and had encouraged Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and fight for his causes.
It was at this point that Wilberforce discovered the two ends for which he would use the rest of his life and career: the abolition of the slave trade and eventually slavery, and the reformation of manners (p. 63).
The reformation of manners (chapter 7) is an intriguing read because the concept alone brings to mind many uncertain ideas as to what Wilberforce might have meant been by a reformation of manners. As Metaxas points out, it appears Wilberforce was involved in numerous social reforms dealing with human dignity, jobs, economics, education, and trade. In all of these he sought to allow a Biblical theology to affect his policies, which led to what is called today as “humane policy.”
Chapters 8-16 give the twenty years story of how the abolition of the slave trade was brought about. Wilberforce, while clearly the leader, was one of many working toward this end. After many difficult defeats, it was finally accomplished. An interesting aspect that Metaxas brings forth is the Clapham community – a community of homes situated on the same land where Wilberforce and many of the other abolitionists lived or frequently visited. This community was extremely successful in working toward social reform, not just of slavery, but in many areas.
Chapters 17-23 give the remaining battles and the latter part of Wilberforce’s life. Finally, three days before his death, slavery was abolished in England. The end of his life was nicely summarized and often highlighted with personal notes from his diary or speeches, lending to a rather authentic feel for the actual person.
Amazing Grace is written as an engaging narrative with many references to primary sources. At times a little too much technical jargon is allowed in, but not enough to obscure the meaning in the text. Metaxas skillfully uses primary sources and excellent story telling ability but is given to overstatement on several occasions as well. Wilberforce was, indeed, a heroic figure who should be studied again today for his many accomplishments, and Metaxas has written an enjoyable biography of this hero which is rather difficult not to finish once begun. The reader is left with a helpful, but not too technical, knowledge of Wilberforce and is inspired to make his or her life count for as much.
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