Amazing Grace tells the story of the remarkable life of the British abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833). This accessible biography chronicles Wilberforce's extraordinary role as a human rights activist, cultural reformer, and member of Parliament.
At the center of this heroic life was a passionate twenty-year fight to abolish the British slave trade, a battle Wilberforce won in 1807, as well as efforts to abolish slavery itself in the British colonies, a victory achieved just three days before his death in 1833.
Metaxas discovers in this unsung hero a man of whom it can truly be said: he changed the world. Before Wilberforce, few thought slavery was wrong. After Wilberforce, most societies in the world came to see it as a great moral wrong.
To mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade, HarperSanFrancisco and Bristol Bay Productions have joined together to commemorate the life of William Wilberforce with the feature-length film Amazing Grace and this companion biography, which provides a fuller account of the amazing life of this great man than can be captured on film.
This account of Wilberforce's life will help many become acquainted with an exceptional man who was a hero to Abraham Lincoln and an inspiration to the anti-slavery movement in America.
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February 28, 2007
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Excerpt from Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas
" . . . if it be a work of grace, it cannot fail."
On August 24, 1759, William Wilberforce was born into a prosperous merchant family in the city of Hull. The impressive, red-brick Jacobean mansion in which he was born was situated on the city's High Street, overlooking the Hull River. The Hull in turn flowed into the much larger Humber, which flowed eastward into the North Sea.
The Wilberforce family proudly traced its lineage in Yorkshire to the twelfth century and the reign of Henry II. Burke's Peerage places them as one of the very few families who can be traced to the far side of the river 1066 and Saxon times. In those days and for centuries afterward, on into Wilberforce's own century, the family name was Wilberfoss. It was changed by Wilberforce's grandfather, who seems to have had something of a "forceful" personality, as evinced in part by his penchant for changing whatever he disliked. It's likely that he wasn't fond of the roots of the suffix foss, which means "vassal" or, in Irish, "servant." That wouldn't do for a political figure with grand ambitions to wealth and power. And Wilberforce it became.
As a boy, the young Wilberforce could see the river from his house's windows and watch the great sailing ships unloading American tobacco and Norwegian timber and Prussian iron before they were loaded with local exports and then sailed away, down the Hull, and down the Humber, and out to the oceans of the world. In his own lifetime, Hull would become an important whaling port, complete with the seasonal stench of rendered cetaceans. But most important to our story are not those cargoes that came in and out of Hull's harbor, but the one that didn't. Though Hull was the fourth-largest port in England, it was the only one that did not participate in the slave trade. It was this happy detail that would enable Wilberforce to remain in political office in years hence. Any member of Parliament from Bristol or Liverpool, whose economies depended on the slave trade, would not have been able to get away with leading the abolitionist movement for long.
Though the Wilberforce family had been merchants in this part of England for two centuries, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that their fortunes rose dramatically. The rise was due largely to William's grandfather, also named William. (Though he had changed Wilberfoss to Wilberforce, he did not fuss with the name William, which means "valiant protector.") Born in 1690, Wilberforce's grandfather had found great success in the Baltic trade and had inherited considerable property from his mother, an heiress of the Davye family. It was this William Wilberforce, twice elected mayor of Hull and thenceforth known as "Alderman" Wilberforce, who was the patriarch of the family.
The Alderman's second son, Robert, married William's mother, Elizabeth Bird, and joined the family business in Hull, taking over as managing partner in 1755. The Alderman's first son, William, had opted out of the family business by marrying Hannah Thornton and moving to London, where her father was director of the Bank of England and a member of Parliament. It was this couple who, following a series of unexpected events, would soon end up having more influence in the life of the young William than his own parents.
By all accounts, William Wilberforce was a glorious little child, a veritable cherub of twinkling luminosity. Upon his death in 1833, his middle sons, Samuel and Robert, began a five-volume biography of their father, which was published in 1838.