Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Story

Amazing Grace is a beautiful song, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. I didn’t like that line “saved a wretch like me.” I don’t think I’m a wretch. Nor are most of my friends.

But once I learned the story behind the song (with a little help from my friends at the Mackinac Center), I became more sympathetic: John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, really was a wretch. Now a new movie is going to bring that story to millions of people.

John Newton was a slave trader and by his own testimony an infidel. He was converted to Christianity but continued in the slave trade. Eventually, however, he renounced that vile life and became an evangelical minister in the Church of England and an abolitionist. “Was blind but now I see,” indeed.

Among the people who heard his preaching was a young member of parliament, William Wilberforce, who was inspired to lead a long campaign for the abolition of slavery – from his maiden speech in 1789 to the final passage of the Abolition Act a month after his death in 1833.

This is one of the greatest stories in history. And now it is the subject of an impressive new movie. I’ve only seen the trailer, but the production values are obviously good, and I’m told that the movie is great. Michael Apted directed. Ioan Gruffudd (best known as Horatio Hornblower) plays Wilberforce. It also features the fine British actors Albert Finney, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, Michael Gambon, and Toby Jones. It opens on February 23.

The story of Newton, Wilberforce, abolition, and Amazing Grace is very popular among evangelical Christians. It’s an unambiguous advance for human freedom and dignity in which evangelicals played central roles. And that’s why the movie is produced by Bristol Bay Productions (owned by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire conservative) which also produced Ray. Anschutz owns another film company which produced The Chronicles of Narnia.

If God’s amazing grace caused John Newton to give up slave trading, then who could object? But you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate what promises to be a well-made movie about this great triumph of liberty.

And for those of us who struggle in the vineyards year after year, trying to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, the story reminds us that humanity has made great progress toward freedom, that each battle for freedom can be long and seemingly futile, but that the goal is worth time and money and effort.

I was once challenged by a Chicago School economist, who thinks everything can be measured, to name the most important libertarian accomplishment in history. I said it was the abolition of slavery. OK, name another, he replied. “The bringing of power under the rule of law,” I suggested. He wanted to know how you would measure that. But even without a caliper we can see the importance of that accomplishment. We can also see that neither of these is yet a final victory.

May Amazing Grace inspire us to continue working, as long as it takes, to liberate men and women from the arbitrary rule of others and to constrain power with the chains of law.

Cross-posted from Comment is free.