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WORLDVIEW: ‘Amazing Grace’: the power of a single life

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Looking for a larger purpose in your life, but doubt you can make a difference in this world?

You owe it to yourself to see “Amazing Grace,” the movie premiering Friday -– the 200th anniversary of the day one man changed history.

If you care about a kid, a teen or a young adult who needs life purpose, take him or her to see it. Pay for their ticket. If necessary, resort to begging, bribery or blackmail. Just do what it takes to get them to this film.

“Amazing Grace” (Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements involving slavery) exposes once again the lie that impersonal forces shape human history. That theory, long popular among secular historians, cannot account for a man like William Wilberforce (1759–1833). What did this 5-foot-tall colossus accomplish? Nothing less than an end to the slave trade throughout the British Empire. He did it in the face of staggering odds, overwhelming opposition, contempt, ridicule and long years of defeat.

The British Parliament, of which Wilberforce was a member, finally abolished slave trading Feb. 23, 1807, after a lonely, 20-year campaign by this evangelical believer. On the day of the vote, he bowed his head and wept as other members stood in Parliament and cheered him. But it would take an additional 26 years for Parliament to muster the courage to end the practice of slavery in the Empire altogether. Wilberforce heard about that impending victory as he lay on his deathbed (he died three days later). It would take yet another generation — and a civil war — to end slavery in the United States. We are still coming to terms with its terrible legacy.

No one said change is easy. But it is possible, with determination –- and the power of the Gospel.

Wilberforce was a highly intelligent, witty and talented politician on the rise when God got hold of him. Elected to Parliament at age 21, he was a commoner, but had friends in high places, including the Prince of Wales and William Pitt, the future prime minister. Yet it was an older friend who helped transform his life: John Newton. The former slave trader and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” was hated and regarded as a “religious fanatic” by sophisticated society, but Newton became a mentor to his young friend. Newton and other early English evangelicals challenged Wilberforce, who was beginning a personal relationship with God, to live out his new faith in the worldly crucible of politics.

He eventually took on the challenge of ending slavery. In the process, Wilberforce “vanquished the very mindset that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia,” writes Eric Metaxas, author of “Amazing Grace,” the book upon which the movie is based.

“He saw the idea that all men and women are created equal by God, in His image, and are therefore sacred,” Metaxas observes. “He saw the idea that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself and that we must do unto others as we would have them do unto us. These ideas are at the heart of the Christian Gospel, and they had been around for at least 18 centuries by the time Wilberforce encountered them…. But no entire society had ever taken these ideas to heart as a society in the way that Britain would. That was what Wilberforce changed forever.”

Was he one of a kind?

In a tribute to Wilberforce when he retired from Parliament, his friend, the poet Robert Southey, told him England “will not look upon your like again.” Not so. A fellow English believer and historical contemporary, the Baptist cobbler William Carey, was already changing history with similar courage and determination.

Carey launched the modern evangelical missionary movement with his writings -– but even more by the power of his personal example. Beginning in 1793, he spent four decades preaching the Gospel in India, teaching the poor to read, producing grammars and dictionaries in six Indian languages and tirelessly campaigning for laws against infanticide, child abandonment and the ritual burning of Indian widows. He did much of his heroic work in defiance of the powerful British East India Company –- which essentially ruled India at the time –- not to mention the clerical establishment of his own church.

Another giant of the 19th century was even shorter than Wilberforce: Lottie Moon of Virginia, claimed by some who knew her to be 4 feet, 3 inches tall. A brilliant scholar and a rebel, she answered a greater calling (like Wilberforce) after a life-changing encounter with Christ. Moon went to China in 1873 as one of Southern Baptists’ pioneering single woman missionaries. She campaigned for an end to the cruel practice of foot-binding among Chinese women, took countless risky journeys in the countryside, endured wars and rebellions. While spending nearly 40 years telling the Chinese about Jesus, she challenged, begged, cajoled and demanded in letters home that Southern Baptists send more missionaries to the lost. The annual mission offering named in her memory has helped send and support thousands of missionaries over the last century.

Personal forces have always shaped history: the living God first and foremost, the devil -– and human beings, who choose to serve one or the other. Choosing not to serve is also an option, of course. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, as the saying goes. Thank God that William Wilberforce, William Carey and Lottie Moon chose to serve, regardless of the cost or the opponents arrayed against them.

Wilberforce challenged the believers of his day to “boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christian are ashamed of Him.” We live in a similar age. Be assured that slavery still exists, in physical and spiritual forms, all over the world. Millions of literal slaves, and the hundreds of millions of spiritual slaves who live around them, wait to be freed through the liberating love of Jesus Christ.

Scripture clearly tells us God is still calling His people to bear witness to the One who can “proclaim freedom to the captives” and “set free the oppressed.”

Be a modern Wilberforce. Help free them!
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. To comment on this column visit CounterCultureBlog.com.

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  • Erich Bridges