Movie tells story of battle against slavery


By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service

The last letter that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote before his death was to William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament fighting to end the British slave trade.  

Dated Feb. 24, 1791 — six days before Wesley died — the letter warned Wilberforce about battle fatigue but offered encouragement: “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” 

Sixteen years later, in 1807, Wilberforce finally achieved his goal when Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade. 

The movie Amazing Grace, opening Feb. 23 in U.S. theaters, chronicles his efforts, and a related campaign focuses on ending modern-day slavery in the world. 

The film’s title refers to the famous hymn by John Newton, a former slave trader who converted to Christianity and became a priest in the Church of England. In the movie, Wilberforce visits Newton twice and, in one scene, climbs atop a table in a pub and sings the hymn’s first verse.  

The National Council of Churches and Asbury College and Seminary have endorsed the movie, along with diverse partners such as the British Royal Navy, CARE, Sojourners, the New Jersey Association of School Librarians and the U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. 

In conjunction with the movie is “The Amazing Change” campaign to continue Wilberforce’s work. Launched by Walden Media, the effort is designed to raise awareness of slavery and other forms of oppression in today’s world, and to encourage involvement in and funding for organizations working to abolish slavery.

One of its funding partners is RugMark, a global nonprofit organization working to end illegal child labor in the carpet industry and offer educational opportunities to children in India, Nepal and Pakistan.  

RugMark is supported by the Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries and was endorsed by the United Methodist Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty.

The campaign has designated Feb. 18 “Amazing Grace Sunday,” encouraging churches to sing the well-known hymn and pray for the end of slavery.  

Portrayed by the actor Ioan Gruffudd, Wilberforce was known as the “conscience of Parliament” as he accumulated evidence against the slave trade, collected some 390,000 signatures supporting its end and introduced numerous anti-slavery bills. 

According to John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life, a spiritual growth resource from Global Ministries, Wilberforce was converted to Christianity under the ministry of Wesley, a lifelong opponent to slavery.  

Wilberforce eventually became a member of the Clapham Set, an evangelical group within the Anglican Church. 

Other historical figures in the film include Newton (Albert Finney), Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Olaudah Eqiano (Youssou N’Dour), who wrote an eyewitness account of his life as a slave and his work in the anti-slavery movement. 

Erik Lokkesmoe, project manager for the movie, said few Americans know about Wilberforce and the story of how the British slave trade was abolished or about his other contributions to social justice issues, such as animal welfare, prison reform and the needs of the poor. 

He called Wilberforce “a remarkable example for this generation” of how someone inspired by faith can change the world.  

“It’s no longer a movie; it’s really a movement,” he said, noting that young people, in particular, seem drawn to the challenge of taking on slavery “in their time.” 

The Church of England is marking the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade with a March 24 act of repentance. Marchers from throughout Britain are expected to meet in London for a procession led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, the Ugandan-born John Sentamu. 

Marchers will carry a giant cross as African drummers beat a lament through the British capital, according to Ecumenical News International.  

During an open-air service in Kensington Park, participants will be invited to sign a petition calling on the government to take more action to end modern-day slavery in the world.   

The Amazing Grace Web site says an estimated 27 million slaves are in the world today. “William Wilberforce’s work is far from finished,” the site proclaims. “… Modern day slavery can come in many different forms. Entire families may work long days in rice-mills, brick kilns or on plantations. Children may be abducted and forced to fight in a rebel’s army.  

“All of the people in these examples are slaves – they cannot come and go as they please and are often beaten or threatened with violence. They have no autonomy in their day-to-day lives and deserve the right to be free.”