[K:NWTS 23/1 (May 2008) 83-84]

Book Review

Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce: A Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. 238 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8028-2593-3. $18.00.

The release, last spring, of the film “Amazing Grace” (starring Ioan Gruffud and Ciarán Hinds) brought to the big screen the remarkable career of a no less remarkable Christian—William Wilberforce (1759-1833). The film was a gripping account of this devout friend of John Newton (former slave boat captain himself and, after his conversion, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, which, in magnificent heart-stirring fashion, closes the film with pipe and drum corps in front of Westminster Abbey—a scene alone worth buying the DVD) and his stubborn, yet courageous battle to abolish the capturing, buying, selling and abusing of black men, women and children as slaves.

Stephen Tompkins now contributes a biography which narrates the frustrating campaign of Wilberforce, the pietistic Clapham Sect and, at the outset in 1787, a minority of a minority in the British Parliament. Fighting uphill all the way for twenty years, against British business interests (slave profiteering—profits garnered from the manufacture of sugar by slave labor), British political interests (the pro-slavery party in Parliament parading the canard that abolition would ‘bring down the nation’), and the British ecclesiastical interests (the mainline Anglican Church was the prop to the majority in Parliament, as well as in the corporate offices), Wilberforce and his tiny band managed, by the amazing grace of God, to alter public opinion by doggedly presenting the graphic horrors of slavery while offering a better moral alternative—the labor of free men, women and children and the dignity of enjoying the fruits of one’s own industry. Still, it would take Parliament twenty more years to declare slavery “morally repugnant”.

Wilberforce’s success involved incremental compromises along the way, yet no compromise in his overall strategy—to banish slavery from the British empire. Tomkins chronicles (often tediously) the vicissitudes of this ‘give and take’, with the pressure of caving-in always in the offing. This pressure even alienated, for a time, Wilberforce’s dear friend and ally in Parliament, the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806).

The story of Wilberforce contains some guidance for evangelicals in the current culture wars. The oppression of fetal persons by the abortion industry (protected by the vested interests of the political and even ecclesiastical establishment); the degradation of all persons by the pornography racket (also granted license by vested political and corporate deviance); the subjugation and humiliation of women, particularly in militant Islam; the genocidal elimination of masses of human beings by crazed totalitarians of the Left from Lenin to Stalin to Hitler to Mao Tse-tung to Ho Chi Minh to Saddam Hussein: all of these moral issues with their political and ecclesiastical ramifications, so apparently manipulated and dominated by the mainstream liberal establishment, may be transformed, may be reformed, may even be abolished by the insights of Wilberforce adapted to the current scene.

Hollywood’s superb film and Tomkins’s book remind us that the battle is not lost though our numbers be few.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.