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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