Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Great stuff about Wilberforce and "Amazing Grace"

When I visited Westminster Abbey some 25 years ago I was so bowled over by the inscription on the tomb of William Wilberforce that I copied it down, brought it home, and printed it in the Grace Church (NYC) bulletin Here it is:

"To the memory of William Wilberforce (born in Hull August 24th 1759, died in London July 29th 1833); for nearly half a century a member of the House of Commons, and, for six Parliaments during that period, one of the two representatives for Yorkshire. In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the Empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity; and in the evening of his days, withdrew from public life and public observation to the bosom of his family. Yet he died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country: The Peers and Commons of England, with the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker at their head, in solemn procession from their respective Houses, carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around, here to repose: till, through the merits of Jesus Christ, his only Redeemer and Saviour, (whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify,) he shall rise in the Resurrection of the just."

With regard to the movie Amazing Grace, I was particularly struck by the very last scene (an epilogue, really), which shows a modern bagpipe band marching in front of Westminster Abbey, playing the hymn "Amazing Grace." Very clearly shown in the background are the ten statues over the great front door that were unveiled in 1997. The statues depict Christian martyrs of the 20th century. One of them is Martin Luther King, Jr. It seemed wonderfully fitting as a way to end the Wilberforce film.

The Westminster Abbey website has information on all the statues of the ten 20th century martyrs, as well as a picture of the Wilberforce monument. (Both William Pitts, the Elder and the Younger, who was Wilberforce's friend, are buried in the Abbey also. It is amazing to realize that Pitt the Younger was only 24 when he became Prime Minister. Wilberforce was 21 when he first went to the House of Commons.)

In addition, I discovered another Abbey inscription closely related to the abolition story:

"In grateful remembrance of Zachary Macaulay, who, during a protracted life, with an intense but quiet perseverance which no success could relax, no reverse could subdue, no toil, privation, or reproach could daunt, devoted his time, talents, fortune, and all the energies of his mind and body to the service of the most injured and helpless of mankind: and who partook for more than forty successive years, in the counsels and in the labours which guided and blest by God first rescued the British Empire from the guilt of the slave trade; and finally conferred freedom on eight hundred thousand slaves; This tablet is erected by those who drew wisdom from his mind, and a lesson from his life, and who now humbly rejoice in the assurance, that through the Divine Redeemer, the foundation of all his hopes, he shares in the happiness of those who rest from their labours, and whose works do follow them. He was born at Inverary, N.B. [North Britain] on the 2 May 1768: and died in London on the 13 May 1838."

And the Abbey website entry adds:
"Just under the bust is a medallion with the kneeling figure of a slave inscribed 'Am I not a man and a brother'."

There were great Christians in England in those days.