Friday, August 8, 2008

Amazing Grace: Pop Culture v. History

by Brad Hart

I realize that I may be stretching a bit on this post. Though we are devoted exclusively to the history of religion in America's founding, it would be virtually impossible -- and possibly even irresponsible -- to cover this all-important topic without occasionally delving into tidbits of history from other lands. After all, we have discussed Locke, Calvin, Luther, and many others, who never physically touched American soil, yet their ideas and contributions have made a tremendous impact on our nation's religious landscape.

With this in mind, I would like to take an in-depth look at a few historical characters that have received some attention in recent years. The movie, Amazing Grace, which was directed by Michael Apted and stars Albert Finney as the Reverend John Newton and Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, is an inspiring tale of Great Britain's struggle to end the African slave trade.[1] In addition, the movie also attempts to shed light on the origins of the infamous hymn, Amazing Grace, which was written by John Newton in 1779. The film also does an elegant job of recreating the Great Britain of the 18th century, including an excellent portrayal of London's contrasting social classes.

Despite these delightful cinemographic recreations, Amazing Grace is deeply saturated with a pop culture image that distorts the historical record. As Adam Hochschild points out in his article, English Abolition: The Movie, the abolitionist movement to end the slave trade was in no way a solo effort on the part of William Wilberforce.[2] In fact, Wilberforce had a tremendous amount of support for his abolitionist agenda. As the articles states:

In recent decades, however, scholars have seen the history of British abolition as involving far more than Wilberforce's personal virtue. In 1787–1788, during the heady period between the American and French Revolutions, a huge grassroots movement against the slave trade burst into life in Britain, startling abolitionists and slave traders alike… more than 300,000 people refused to buy West Indian sugar. This was the largest consumer boycott the world had yet seen.[3]
To be certain, Wilberforce is a man that is more than deserving of the accolades he has received over the years, however, we should all be mindful that British abolitionism was a movement in which thousands of British citizens felt morally compelled to take action. In fact, the British abolitionist movement was deeply inspired by the religious attitudes of the masses. As Hochschild again points out:

The movement was led by an extremely imaginative, hard-working committee of activists, most of them Quakers, who pioneered tactics that are still used by human rights groups today…In addition, Anglican sentiment against the slave trade forced clergy members to adopt a pro-abolitionist stance in their sermons.
In addition, the best-selling memoirs of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who became a powerful voice for abolition in Britain -- essentially Britain’s Frederick Douglass -- made mention of the Christian imperative to end the slave trade:

“O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African as you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”[4]
Apart from the story on the abolition of the slave trade, Amazing Grace attempts to provide an inspiring tale on the origins of John Newton’s infamous hymn. In the movie, the Reverend John Newton is portrayed as a former heathen, who goes the way of the world by taking part in the transportation of thousands of African slaves. While in the course of transporting these slaves, Newton allegedly experiences a change of heart, in which he realizes the errors of his ways and devotes the rest of his life to the ministry and a remission for his sins.

While this comes off sounding nice, the truth is actually a bit different. As Adam Hochschild points out:

The reality was quite different. Most inconveniently for sin-and-repentance storytellers, John Newton came to evangelical Christianity before making four transatlantic voyages as a slave-ship officer, not afterward. He left the trade not for reasons of conscience but of health. And when he later was ordained a minister, he had all his savings invested with his former employer, who still had a fleet of slave ships at sea. There is no evidence that he mentioned slavery when Wilberforce first came to see him. Newton said not a word in public against the slave trade until 1788, several years after meeting Wilberforce and more than thirty years after he left the sea; by then a huge mass movement was underway and it was no longer easy for so prominent a former slave trader to avoid taking a stand. He then wrote a forceful pamphlet against the trade, testified twice at hearings, mentioned the subject once or twice in sermons, and otherwise did not openly raise it again for the remaining two decades of his preaching and writing life. He believed that the major evil of the day was blasphemy, which he once called "Our national sin."
So instead of being offered as an atonement for sin, Newton’s Amazing Grace was actually written while the reverend continued to profit from the slave trade.

So why does a pop culture spin on an 18th century British story matter? Because Christian politicians have taken up the “cause of Wilberforce” to help further their respective agendas. As Hochschild again points out:

Congressman Frank Wolf, a Virginian Republican, says, "If we can get the word out about Wilberforce's life and legacy, as shown in the movie Amazing Grace, we can change this country." Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, talks about the man so much that The Economist recently dubbed him and others "Wilberforce Republicans." Their agenda is much the same as that of others on the far right, with a few twists, such as an interest in prison reform (Wilberforce himself used to visit prisoners and ask them to repent). Many Wilberforce Republicans claim that if he were alive today, their hero would be leading the fight against abortion.

Even the unsavory political consultant Dick Morris portrays himself as a Wilberforce admirer. When asked on Fox News recently about the uproar over racist remarks by talk-show host Don Imus, Morris said, "It reminds me of William Wilberforce.... His whole crusade was a reformation of manners. No cock fighting. No dog fighting. No bull baiting. No abusing of horses.... And of course no slavery." (Morris did not mention various other things Wilberforce opposed, which ranged from the theater to public bathing in the Thames to "the progressive rise of Wages.")
Though often entertaining, the radical distortions made by pop culture outlets are often more powerful than the truth. For political leaders to glean their historical knowledge and perspective from film is disturbing to say the least. If you are wanting a long-term prognosis, my guess is that pop culture and history are likely to be at war for a long time to come.

Here is a clip from Amazing Grace in which William Wilberforce and the Reverend John Newton discuss the evils of the slave trade. See the twisting of history for yourself:

[2] Adam Hochschild, “English Abolition: The Movie,” published in The New York Review Of Books Volume 52, Number 10, June 14, 2007.
[3] Special thanks to Edward Babinski for sending me a copy of this article. His website:
[4] Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Pp. 68-69.,M1


bpabbott said...

Brad, I'm seeing this posted twice :-(

bpabbott said...

ok that's embarrassing ... the second one is gone ;-)

Brad Hart said...

Yeah, sorry. I messed up. Further proof of my computer illiteracy!

Phil Johnson said...

Thanks for putting this together.
I'm continuing to see how our present day perspectives create a major liability for us when we attempt to learn history.
An example is the idea of "orthodox Christianity" which is a constantly evolving procession of beliefs. What was orthodox in 1700 is not the same as what was in 1800 and it is not the same as what it is considered to be today. The very word, orthodox, explains that it is constantly evolving.
I guess it's the old thing we learned in our sophomore year at college--just observing something can change it.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! I think this sort of thing is entirely relevant, like the whole of the British political and religious climate before the birth and during the infancy of the American republic.

It's also consistent in that it replaces a simple cinematic tale of heroism with a story featuring a wider and more diverse cast.