Amazing Grace, The Movie

by Phil Johnson

The movie Amazing Grace is about William Wilberforce and his colleagues who fought to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire and about John Newton who wrote the song and to whom Wilberforce went for spiritual advice. In 1807, 200 years ago, parliament passed the bill outlawing the slave trade.

David Denby wrote in the New Yorker that the movie “offers what might be called an ideal of virile ethical activity.” I had never heard that term as I recall and I think it pays a good, strong, deserved compliment to the movie. A friend informed me that the Producer, Ken Wales, aims at producing motion pictures with ethical value. One fine example is the TV series Christie in the 70s. The movie A Man Called Peter (about Peter Marshall, Senate Chaplain) has long been Mr. Wales’ yardstick for the kind of significant movie he wanted to make. I think Ken has done just what he hoped to do—Amazing Grace is a fine, noble, and ethical work.

John Newton wrote the poem “Amazing Grace” for use in a sermon he preached in 1772. It is reported that his church was usually, overflowing. Newton came down from the pulpit after the sermon, sorted through music scores and selected one with the proper meter. Folks gathered around and sang it as a hymn. According to Producer Wales, no one has been able to determine what music was used that first time. According to The Covenant Hymnal, the tune we now sing is an American folk tune dated 1831. Since the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” were written by Newton in 1772 and the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed in 1807, no one at that time was singing the tune we sing. The movie ignores the anachronism for good reason.

John Newton was a major influence on Wilberforce. He encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics when William was much inclined to pursue the ministry. Newton, a self-described converted slave-trading sinner and slave ship captain, became a powerful voice against slavery. He wrote and sang “Amazing Grace” because even a “wretch” like him could become a child of God. The name Amazing Grace is well-chosen. No other tune could have worked for the hymn to speak of this ethical victory to us in our time.

From an American perspective Wilberforce’s victory has special importance. America permitted slavery and even supported it during these years. The land of all persons created equal did not allow that Negroes were persons. This country’s laws supported the practice of slavery. Slaves were property and most Americans believed rights of private property should be supported and defended by the law.

There was an equally heroic struggle against slavery by many citizens in the United States. The main activity in that struggle was the “Underground Railroad.” The book Bound for Canaan, a fine history of the “Railroad,” reveals both how rough it was in this country for many people, black people in particular, and also how fine and terrific the heroes were—especially the “station masters” and “conductors” of the Underground Railroad.

William Lloyd Garrison spread the message and trumpeted the gospel by founding The Liberator in 1831 and publishing it until 1865. The Quakers were the major early source of spoken conviction and action as they provided in England. Quaker Erik Hopper started helping fugitive slaves escape before there was an Underground Railroad and he was still active when the Railroad was functioning at its peak in the 1840s and 50s. The heroes are numerous. Harriet Tubman, John Rankin, and Frederick Douglas, are merely the beginning of the list. They all deserve great honor.

However, without the work of Wilberforce and his colleagues and the actions and attitudes of the people of the British Empire, there would not have been a haven of freedom in Canada for the fugitive slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished at a huge cost to English taxpayers in the Empire in 1833, the year of the death of Wilberforce. The government paid the slave holders for their slaves. So, Canada became a land of certain freedom for slaves to head for. If this had not been the case, the success of the Underground Railroad would have been greatly diminished.

I imagine it seemed like a miracle to slaves who had very little information, especially in the earlier years (the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries), to find that there actually was a place from which slave owners were totally barred and every person was free, owned by no one else.

A movie about the Underground Railroad would have grand heroes and a terrific, ultimately victorious or, as Ken Wales says, “redemptive” ending as does Amazing Grace. Surely the freed slaves and their conductor friends and colleagues sang “Amazing Grace” when there was no more need for the fugitives to be silent.

We have seen Amazing Grace twice and we will purchase the DVD when it is available. Though there were many more heroes and forces at work making for the success of Wilberforce than the move covers which would add to the story, Ken Wales and his colleagues have created a great, victorious, hopeful, ethical epic that is a heck of a good story.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson