Patron saint of evangelicals

wilberforceThe New York Times‘ Alan Riding reviewed the new film Amazing Grace in Sunday’s paper. I had the opportunity to see an early screening of the film a month ago and have been eager for media reviews.

The film is about William Wilberforce, a British politician, abolitionist and leader of the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade. I always say that Wilberforce is the patron saint of the pro-life movement because I’ve heard so many abortion opponents lovingly invoke his lengthy and eventually successful struggle against slavery. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is the patron saint of evangelicals. If evangelicals had patron saints . . .

In addition to his political work, Wilberforce was also an enthusiastic Christian — an Anglican with Methodist leanings. Which is why this line from Riding’s review gives one pause:

Now, two centuries later, the story of how William Wilberforce and a handful of other Quaker activists persuaded a reluctant British Parliament to abolish the slave trade is retold in Michael Apted’s new movie, “Amazing Grace,” which will be released in the United States on Friday. It is a story of good versus evil in which, after endless setbacks, the world ends up a better place.

Wilberforce wasn’t a Quaker, although many of those involved in the abolition movement — both in the United States and England — were. And then there’s this:

The movie’s title is borrowed from the much-loved hymn written by John Newton, himself a former captain of a British slave trader who underwent a religious conversion and who later, as an evangelical minister, became a friend and adviser to Wilberforce.

Newton was, of course, an Anglican clergyman. I’m not saying he wasn’t evangelical, but it’s just an interesting choice. Some readers suspected that the reviewer was maliciously abstaining from mentioning Wilberforce’s evangelicalism. But I rather suspect these were ignorant mistakes.

Perhaps I find this all so interesting because the film — which I enjoyed — had a remarkable lack of religion in it, considering who Wilberforce was. There’s even a scene in which William Pitt is dying (I would consider this a spoiler if it hadn’t happened hundreds of years ago) and tells Wilberforce that he wishes he had his faith. Wilberforce responds by talking about politics. This is not the Wilberforce I’ve read about. But apparently there’s a reason for hiding the faith under a bushel:

As it happens, Bristol Bay Productions initially wanted a biopic focused on Wilberforce’s faith, “which is why I and a lot of other people didn’t want to make it,” Mr. Apted recalled. “I wanted to center the whole film on the anti-slave trade debate, and they agreed. To me it is about people who have a moral or religious sense of purpose and yet manage to operate in the world.”

That’s an interesting tidbit to include in a film review, and I’m glad Riding did.

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  • ira rifkin

    Sorry, but this is not a review. It’s a feature piece on the upcoming film; hence the quotes from Apted. The Times hasn’t run a review as yet, and I’m guessing won’t until opening day. Of course, none of this excuses any factual errors and errors of judgment in the film – except that filmmaking is all about making judgments, including what will fly commercially.

  • Eric W

    How much credit or mention does the movie give to Granville Sharp? If all you know about Granville Sharp is the New Testament Greek rule named after or by him – or if, like most people, you don’t know anything about Granville Sharp – then you need to know more about him:

    Excerpt: “In spite of his largely low-key efforts, Sharp’s name became so strongly attached to the cause of abolition that his opinions were respected by important figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Over many years, he heavily influenced, through frequent correspondence and personal contact, Anthony Benezet (a major abolitionist in Philadelphia), Benjamin Rush, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams in America; John Wesley, William Wilberforce, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dukes of Richmond and Gloucester in England; General Lafayette of France, and many others.”

  • Eli

    Fascinating post, Mollie. Really good stuff. I think it’s so interesting how some in the MSM treat faith and religion like taboo topics unless they lead to horrific behaviour like the suicide bombers with 9/11 or Ted Haggard’s methed-up gay hooker forays.

    When Apted says:

    “To me it is about people who have a moral or religious sense of purpose and yet manage to operate in the world.”

    I wonder if his meaning would have been all that different if he’d instead said:

    “To me it is about people who have a moral or religious sense of purpose and despite their faith manage to operate in the world.”

    While I suppose it’s entirely valid to focus on the “how” instead of the “why” of the story, I’m a bit disappointed that they would only make the movie contingent on playing down the faith aspect of it and playing up the political aspect. Without having seen it, and now chomping at the bit to go check it, Amazing Grace *does* seem to be about validating and humanizing a whole group of people, and also in a sense and a subtle way, be about be about dehumanizing the religious and faith aspect of a whole movement of religious people.

  • George Harper

    I contacted the NYT twice about Riding’s error. Here’s a copy of Riding’s reply to my second message:

    “I have just sent you a note plus a copy of a separate version of the story in the IHT [International Herald Tribune], which avoided this error. We will run a correction in the NYT. Thank you for pointing it out. Best wishes, Alan Riding
    PS An editor at the IHT spotted this mistake – but no other reader but you has so far signalled it.”

    I’m surprised that other readers of this blog didn’t call the NYT on this. And I haven’t yet seen any correction.