Apted Aptly Downplays Wilberforce’s Faith in Amazing Grace

It would seem that there is a general consensus of opinion among critics (those writing from a Christian perspective as well as from a purely secular point of view) that Amazing Grace, the biopic film portraying William Wilberforce’s political battle to end the slave trade in the British colonies, does not do justice to Wilberforce’s vibrant Christian faith that informed that epic struggle.  Having seen the movie for the first time last night, and having read John Piper’s brief biography focusing succinctly on Wilberforce’s faith, I find myself agreeing with the critics.

Charlotte Allen, writing in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, February 23 observes:

It is rare that a Hollywood film takes up a subject like William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British parliamentarian who devoted nearly his entire 45-year political career to banning the British slave trade. Alas, a lot of people watching “Amazing Grace,” Michael Apted’s just-released film, may get the impression–perhaps deliberately fostered by Mr. Apted–that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice. Along the way, they may also get the impression that the hymn “Amazing Grace” is no more than an uplifting piece of music that sounds especially rousing on the bagpipes.

And the New York Times reported the following in its review of Amazing Grace on February 18:

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.”

Bob Beltz is an associate producer on the Amazing Grace project who recently updated William Wilberforce’s lengthy treatise, originally titled A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity. I asked him if Michael Apted, the director of Amazing Grace, had been quoted out of context by the New York Times reviewer, to which he replied:

First of all, that’s a very inaccurate statement, even by Michael Apted (which I probably shouldn’t say). I sat in a meeting with Michael Apted when he was approached about directing the film. Six different times he was directly challenged that the faith element of this film was extremely important to us and would he honor that, and six different times he said, “Yes.” For some reason some of these guys are afraid to admit that somehow Christian faith really is the thing that makes the difference; and yet the film is so powerful in terms of portraying the fact that it was his faith, and his relationship with Newton, that really motivated him. The film really kind of plays out as a political thriller, but the message is quite clear, actually right down to an actual quote from John Newton in the film, where Newton says to him, “I only remember two things: that I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

While the film is definitely worth seeing, it would seem that the producers had a much different vision of just how much Wilberforce’s faith would be on display in the film, as opposed to the vision of the director Michael Apted who clearly wished to downplay it.  But for the true story of just how Wilberforce’s Christian faith informed his struggle, I commend to you John Piper’s Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. Beyond that, if you want to really invest yourself in understanding Wilberforce’s faith, read for yourself his very lengthy treatise on the difference between “professing Christians” and “real Christians.”  A link to the .pdf file is above.

If you haven’t already seen the movie, read Piper and Wilberforce first. What little of Wilberforce’s faith is on display on the screen will be magnified 1000 times by a true understanding of his faith.  And the book is always better than the movie, anyway.

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About Paul Edwards

Paul is the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of God and Culture in Detroit, Michigan and Founding and Teaching Pastor at Redeemer Church of Waterford, Michigan.