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Originally published Saturday, March 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Abolitionist's story told

Chances are many Americans haven't heard of him. But if U.S. evangelical leaders and others have their way, the 19th-century evangelical...

Religion News Services

Chances are many Americans haven't heard of him. But if U.S. evangelical leaders and others have their way, the 19th-century evangelical and abolitionist William Wilberforce soon will become a household name.

A new film, "Amazing Grace," which opened nationwide Feb. 23, marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade — a cause championed by Wilberforce in Parliament as the first step in eventually abolishing slavery itself.

Evangelicals hope to use the film to reclaim Wilberforce as one of the early architects of modern-day evangelism and to raise awareness about modern-day slavery.

The film was produced partly by the sister company of Walden Media, a leading distributor of faith-friendly films — "The Chronicles of Narnia," among others — that is led by influential Colorado evangelical Philip Anschutz.

Director Michael Apted said he initially turned down the project because he didn't like the film's direction as a linear biopic focusing on Wilberforce's faith.

Apted suggested switching the story to focus on Wilberforce's anti-slavery crusade. He brought on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight to develop the idea.

"Christianity, of course — that's very important to the inner man," said Apted, the president of the Directors Guild of America, "but [we wanted] to make the slave trade the center of the film and then to cherry-pick, as it were, from his life as you needed."

Wilberforce was born into a wealthy trading family in 1759 in England. By the age of 21, he was a member of Parliament. Around that time, he converted to evangelicalism.

Albion Urdank, a professor of British and European history at University of California, Los Angeles, said about 500 Church of England clergy would have called themselves evangelicals when Wilberforce joined the movement. Evangelicals were considered part of the "low church," along with John Wesley's Methodists, and somewhat radical.

The Methodists and evangelicals worked closely together. Wilberforce teamed up with John Newton (played by Albert Finney), a former slave-ship-captain-turned-evangelical who penned the words to the hymn "Amazing Grace." Wilberforce used Newton's hymn as an unofficial anthem for his mission.

Wilberforce also collaborated with a group known broadly as the Clapham Sect — the "Anglican elite," Urdank said — who "took a humanitarian-reformist interest in the question of slavery."

Wilberforce worked the political structure for two decades to launch a petition against slavery and boycott the sugar industry and its reliance on slaves. The bill to end the slave trade passed in 1807, and by 1833 Parliament outlawed slavery.

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Ioan Gruffudd, the Welsh actor who plays Wilberforce in "Amazing Grace," said he was struck by Wilberforce's extensive daily diary entries. "He would write down in his diary what he felt bad about he had done that day," Gruffudd said. "Sort of beating himself up, at the same time doing this noble thing."

Now, evangelical groups and others are organizing events to commemorate Wilberforce's life and his fight against slavery.

Among activities:

• Walden Media's Amazing Change Campaign has set up a Web site (www.theamazingchange.com) to "carry on Wilberforce's vision of mercy and justice." Visitors are urged to sign a petition to end modern-day slavery.

• The World Evangelical Alliance has created a resource guide for the film, including sermon tips, small-group guides, PowerPoint presentations and video clips.

The evangelical push to reclaim Wilberforce, however, is not without its critics.

Randall Balmer, an expert on evangelicals at Barnard College/Columbia University in New York, said religious conservatives "are taking great pains to style themselves as the so-called 'new abolitionists' in order to emphasize the moral parallel between their opposition to abortion and the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century."

Balmer finds that a bit disingenuous.

"As I see it, the great contribution of 19th-century evangelicals was to work on behalf of those on the margin of society, including slaves but also women and the poor," he said. "I simply don't see that range of concerns reflected in the actions and the agenda of the religious right at the turn of the 21st century."

For his part, Apted hopes the movie will attract evangelicals and nonevangelicals alike who are drawn to Wilberforce as a man of principle. "He wanted to make the world in his own terms a better place," Apted said, "[and] he didn't do it by lecturing people [and] taking the morally superior position."

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