Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce
Publisher: Crossway (2007)
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
This little biography emerged as the dual fruit of the 2002 Bethlehem conference for pastors and the 2006 big screen release Amazing Grace. John Piper’s goal from the outset was to lift up William Wilberforce first as a Christian, second as an author, and third as a politician. Without the first two the third would have never had the effect it had on British law and morality, namely the abolition of both the slave trade, and eventually slavery in the British Empire.
Piper first hones in on Wilberforce’s identity as a Christian. Rather than engage in detailed minutiae of Wilberforce’s life, Piper simply mentions the major touchstones of Wilberforce’s Christian journey. After experiencing the influence John Welsey, George Whitefield and John Newton at an early age, his mother later placed him in a school where his religion would stagnate. Later, as a dissolute playboy, on a lark he ran for parliament and was elected. There he spent many years in self-promotion and self-amusement. In God’s providence he was reacquainted with two figures from his childhood, his old schoolteacher Isaac Milner, and John Newton. Piper drives home the point that to associate with “enthusiastic” men such as these (“enthusiastic” being a derogatory word for passionate evangelicals at the turn of the nineteenth century) would be the death knell of many a parliamentary career. However, Wilberforce’s fears were soon replaced by the peace and joy of a relational God.
What followed soon after, at age thirty-seven, was the production of Wilberforce’s magnum opus, A Practical View of Christianity. In order to understand Wilberforce and his life’s work, Piper adjures the intrepid reader to start further explorations in that book. While other biographies have their uses, he says, their singular focus is not usually on the faith of their individual subject, whereas Wilberforce’s book freely betrays his secrets of happiness: doctrinal orthodoxy, joy in all circumstances, love of humankind, and the certain knowledge that He was doing God’s will.
Thirdly, Piper investigates Wilberforce as a politician, but this identity is never divorced from his Christianity. Everything Wilberforce was as a politician was firmly rooted in the Gospel of Christ. Imagine if all Christians considering political careers read both this book and Wilberforce’s own book. We have all but lost the Wilberforcean type of man in this age.
Jonathan Aikten, a former British MP and biographer in his own right, wrote in the foreward that he believes Piper’s book deserves to become an acclaimed bestseller. That’s high praise indeed coming from the man who chronicled the lives of John Newton, Richard Nixon, and Charles Colson (thus far). While I enjoyed the book, I don’t know that I can be that effusive, but I can recommend this book highly, for a quick read about a seminal figure in Christian history and – dare I say – Christian politics.