Reviewed by John Wilson
"A Crackling Bonfire of Truth and Clarity"
The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, and the bicentennial of that epochal event is being marked by a host of books, symposia, and other commemorations, including the just–released film Amazing Grace. If you read only one book on the subject this year, make it the companion volume to the film, Eric Metaxas' Amazing Grace, which shows how William Wilberforce's evangelical Christian convictions impelled him to lead the campaign against human bondage.
From our perspective it is hard to grasp how daunting a challenge the abolitionists faced. Slavery was a given, an institution as old as civilization itself, and it was immensely profitable. Learned Christians could point to biblical texts that seemed to regard slavery simply as a fact of life—texts in which slaves were enjoined to obey their masters. Whence then this seditious talk about "abolition"?
Metaxas tells us. He is an irresistible writer. In a well–meant but misleading blurb, the redoubtable Baroness Caroline Cox describes Amazing Grace as a "superb, scholarly, must–read book." The misleading word there is "scholarly." Metaxas has made his way through shelves of scholarship, but he would be the first to say that his own book has a different mission: to tell a story we may vaguely think we know, and tell it with such a sharp eye and ready wit and moral passion that we are caught up in the momentum of it and blown away, left at the end to marvel—and to wonder what claim this tale is making on us, right here and now, for to put the book down and go about our business unchanged would be a crime.
One possible answer to that question—what should I do?—is supplied by a book published alongside Amazing Grace, David Batstone's Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It. That slavery flourishes today, despite laws and public opprobrium, is a reminder that Wilberforce's work is not done. That the fight won't be easy is confirmed by Kevin Bales in Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader. But no one believed at first that Wilberforce's campaign would succeed.
Taking up the fight against modern–day slavery isn't the only way to respond to the story of Wilberforce and the many others who changed not only the law but also the heart–felt attitudes of people around the world. Surely there are institutionalized evils today enjoying the same bland acceptance that once condoned slavery. Are we, like Wilberforce, willing to have our eyes opened?
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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