Book Review: Eric Metaxas’ Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

Posted August 30, 2011 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Eric Metaxas’ Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

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


Eric Metaxas

biography in Hardcover edition that was published by HarperCollins on February 6, 2007 and has 304 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

Other books by this author which I have reviewed include Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich Read My rating: 1 of 5 stars2 of 5 stars3 of 5 stars4 of 5 stars[ 5 of 5 stars ] Preview Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich

This is an incredible story about William Wilberforce, the man who changed the world using a “broken windows” approach. I feel so bad that it took me so long to read it. And only because I’ve needed my escapist reading more than I had the urge to read something so very uplifting.

Read this, if only to become aware of how often Wilberforce shows up in fictional stories! An excellent example of writers using real history in their writing.

My Take


William Wilberforce began as a man of his age. Extremely witty and partaking in the frivolous pastimes of his class until he experienced his “Great Change” — his conversion to Christianity, Methodism to be precise. A religion that was seen as quackery by his peers and family. It’s odd the emphasis that Wilberforce placed on “his converting to Christianity”. It pounds home the lack of true Christianity that existed in the England of 1785. An England that was turning its back on “serious Christian belief” with religion in “full-scale retreat”, abandoning “orthodox, historical Christianity” for “a tepid kind of moralism that seemed to present civility and the preservation of the status quo as the summum bonnum.” — Isn’t this what we are experiencing now, in the 21st century?

Metaxas did note that the “religious excesses of the seventeenth century”1 likely had something to do with the “avoidance of religious ardor” and that compassion became more of an outward show as opposed to a proud tradition. I can imagine there was a reverse approach to religion what with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I’s reaction to Catholicism followed by Cromwell and the need for priest’s holes.

Page 71 points out that:

“…Britain chose a more civilized and decorous path away from religion: it would staunchly retain the outward trappings and forms…keeping the lower classes better behaved — but it would deny religion any real power…If, before the British faith had been like a great and noble lion…now…become something more like a lapdog…that could be fed bits of cheese and petted.”

This makes me wonder if the decay of the Church of England began then. It is interesting that Wilberforce points out [on page 170] that “Christianity has always thrived under persecution”.

Social Unrest

With all that had been happening socially throughout Europe — the French Revolution, the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire, the American Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution which turned economics on its head — those in power feared “men like [George] Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley [first Methodists] for threatening the social order. The lower classes were being encouraged to think for themselves”, that “Blacks and women were finding a place in this new, vibrant form of Christianity”. “Wild Dionysian forces threaten to tear society apart”. -Just like Luther, back in the day, LOL!

Metaxas points out the gross ills of 18th century England: child labor, alcoholism, prostitution (p 69). Then there’s the English version of the Roman circus “keeping the masses distracted and entertained in their squalor” with the use of cockfighting, bullbaiting and its variations, public executions like hanging, burning, and displaying their bodies in iron cages alongside the roads (p 74). There is an interesting description of a bulldog’s breeding. It certainly sounds effective. And the variations on bull-baiting that Metaxas describes makes today’s violent RPGs seem benign (p 76)! As for the prostitution. There was very little in the way of jobs available for women of any class. When you weigh the choices between equality of the sexes with equal opportunities for careers versus the lack of career choices then, I’d rather have the poor choices of today which seem so incredibly rich by the eighteenth century possibilities!

Broken Windows

I had no idea the broken windows idea was alive back then (p 78)! It is such an incredibly brilliant idea and I can’t believe that more cities and neighborhoods don’t incorporate this strategy. It makes sense as to why a wealthy 18th century man would take on such a hidden evil as slavery now. Absolutely brilliant!!

At first, Wilberforce talks of leaving politics just because he’s suddenly realized how selfish he’s been. Why? Use his position to improve things! Instead he’s going to be more selfish by going off into a corner to whine??? Convinced to remain in Parliament, Wilberforce was determined to be truly Christian and help those less fortunate than himself. He donated a great deal of his money to others notably Hannah More who, with her four sisters, organized the charitable Mendip schools in and around Cowslip Green. But Wilberforce wanted something he could do. Something that would life the lot of people in England and in his exploration, Wilberforce realized that slavery had to be abolished.

Why Choose Slavery as the Ill to Mend?

Wilberforce realized that by abolishing slavery, the effects of it would slowly be eliminated. He believed that the inhumanity of the slave ships slipped over into life on land — the broken windows approach.

The early stages of the French Revolution with its democratization and human rights caused the English people to understand in the early 1790s that they did have a voice in their government. They, as a people, existed. Unfortunately, as the horrors escalated in France, demanding the end of slavery was seen [and promoted] as a radical change in the status quo and with the French chopping off the heads of their king and queen, that opportunity to abolish slavery died.

There is a lovely quote from a speech given in Parliament by Charles Fox, leader of the Whig opposition:

I know it to be inhuman. I am certain it is unjust. I find it so inhuman and unjust that, if the colonies cannot be cultivated without it, they ought not to be cultivated at all…

Of course, the quote does lose some of its majesty when you realize that England has just lost the Colonies and the English no longer have anything to gain from slave-worked plantations…

Wilberforce was one of the men behind the establishment of Sierra Leone as a refuge for former slaves. A noble experiment but after having lived myself in Sierra Leone for over a year and a half, a failed experiment. He and his Clapham cronies also supported Henri Christophe in his transformation of Haiti. I love that Wilberforce encouraged King Henri to educate the women of Haiti as well! Talk about a progressive!

In February 1807, Wilberforce’s bill for the “Abolition of the Slave Trade” passed and, as Metaxas puts it, was “awake inside his own dream”. I just love that phrase. How many of us are granted that or have the will to push for something so tremendous.

Another lovely quote by Sir James Mackintosh “…that so much exertion should be necessary to suppress such a flagrant injustice.” How true and how universal as we still expend so much energy today to right injustices.

Yet another quote by William Lecky, the Irish historian — “…the crusade…against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.” How sad that Lecky believes it is only three or four pages…

Another racist issue close to Wilberforce’s heart was sending missionaries to India. Now my first reaction was, “oh lord, no!”, but as I read on, I realized I was too precipitate, and Wilberforce’s success in getting this law repealed had “an historical and monumental effect on the way the British saw themselves and their role in the world”. As Metaxas puts it, it “forg[ed] a fundamentally different national identity [in England] for generations to come.”

Yes, Wilberforce did see the missionaries as spreading Christianity, but his overriding concern was to eliminate the oppression of a darker race as well as the sense of justification members of the British East India Company felt in doing so. His belief that the English had an obligation to “enlighten and reform them” is rather paternalistic as well as judgmental, but then his examples justify what he hoped to accomplish. I’m conflicted between disgust at interfering with the culture of another country and yet the female infanticide and suttee is also disgusting. Especially when you know the reality behind such practices is simple greed!

Metaxas also mentions the practice of keeping underage “mistresses”, legally permitted child sex slaves as well as the Vade Mecum, the official manual put out by the East India Company 48 of which pages “were devoted to the subject of ‘mistresses’.”

The law was repealed in 1814 as another major turning point in British relationships with the world turning “from looting to paternalism” continuing the trend Wilberforce started with the abolition of slavery and setting up the Golden Rule as the “standard of behavior not only between individuals but between entire nations and peoples”. This turnabout continued with the rise of social conscience and a switch in seeing “a seat in Parliament as a position from which one might help the poor” instead of as an opportunity for “one’s own advancement”.

Jeez, Spain and Portugal, at the Congress of Vienna at Napoleon’s first exile, “ask[ed] for an eight-year ‘grace’ period in which they might ‘restock’ their colonies” when Castlereagh requested an international prohibition of slave trading. “Restock”. Catholic countries. Luckily for Wilberforce, Napoleon broke out of Elba and sought to “placate his chief enemy” and “proclaimed an immediate abolition of the slave trade throughout the French empire”. Even more luckily for Wilberforce, the proclamation stuck when Napoleon got stuck on St. Helena.

Wilberforce even had the moral standing to realize that he had to quit the fight and encourage a younger man to lead the fight for emancipation. A younger man who had the energy and drive to lead to victory. It wasn’t a requirement that he achieve it, just that it was achieved.

And still Wilberforce was “”awake inside his own dream” when, just days before his death, the bill to emancipate the slaves in the West Indies passed.

A funny bit is a description of Princess Charlotte, George IV’s wife, as looking like a Fanny Royds, an early precursor for the Weeble.

Results of Wilberforce’s Efforts

Some of Wilberforce’s efforts on behalf of the English included: reducing the number of crimes punishable by hanging, penal reform for women and in penal colonies, naval floggings, climbing boys, child labor laws, founding the Society for the Relief of Manufacturing Poor as well as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824.

Societies created by him or the group at Clapham included numerous societies and institutions to help the poor and military orphans, girls and women who had fallen on hard times.

Another of Wilberforce’s great aims was to improve the manners of Englishmen, and simply by example, he had a profound effect on English society. He traded a powerful seat in Parliament for a lesser one to “spend more time with his family” particularly on the Sabbath and he and his family, twice a day, conducted family prayer.

William Wilberforce is one of those politicians of whom the world could use so many more. He cared more for what was right than what was expedient or showed him in a good light.

Can you imagine a politician who spoke up for what was right? Suffered the criticism and rumormongering of those who hated what he did. And did it what he thought was right for the nation anyway. An ethical revolution.

1 Oliver Cromwell’s Civil War ranged from 1642 to 1649 with Cromwell ruling Great Britain as a Commonwealth and Protectorate until 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne with the Stuarts reigning until 1688 when Parliament threw them out for a Protestant king and queen.