Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Amazing Grace

graceThis 2007 biography of the anti-slavery campaigner and British politician of the eighteenth century, William Wilberforce, begins with a foreword from the then President of Wilberforce University, which he describes as the single greatest institutional memorial to Wilberforce, a private black university in Ohio, owned and run by black Americans. I feel embarrassed on the university’s behalf, because this book is shockingly unscholarly, and has no business being associated with it. The author lists a number of earlier biographies of Wilberforce as his sources, and seems to have cherry-picked from them without attributions or sense. This book reads as if written by an avid reader of historical fiction and essays for sale online. Even an old-fashioned print encyclopaedia would have been an improvement, because then Eric Metaxas, ‘author of Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About God But Were Afraid To Ask and thirty children’s books’, would have had the opportunity to improve his understanding of Wilberforce’s Britain in the eighteenth century.

The first objection I have to this book, setting aside its flawed logic and offensively matey style, is that Metaxas judges the Church of England in Wilberforce’s day by the standards of modern Christianity as practiced by evangelical churches in the USA, ignoring the cultural, temporal and social differences that set these worlds apart. ‘High Church Anglicanism’ was ‘thin gruel and weak tea’, and ‘morally blind’. Metaxas tells us that eighteenth-century London church-going was a ‘highly-lacquered surface’ and anyone who had sincere beliefs invited ‘stares and whispers and certain banishment’. In fact, in the mid-eighteenth century, religion in Britain ‘would be defanged and declawed’. But look! despite this absence of ‘religion’, King George reads the Bible to his daughters every night. Metaxas, how did you let that one slip through your judgemental net?

I rail against Metaxas’ hyperbole (‘Wilberforce was simply the greatest social reformer in the history of the world’; ‘no politician has ever used his faith to a greater result for all of humanity’), and his glutinous phrases (‘Wilberforce was a glorious child, a veritable cherub of twinkling luminosity’). I despair at his parading unrelated facts at random (‘he was enrolled at the Hull Grammar School, which the poet Andrew Marvell had attended as a boy in the previous century’; he tells us proudly that Stephen Hawking would hold the professorship of one of Wilberforce’s friends).

I am stunned at his ignorance of the historical period (‘Hull was a gay, prattling world of card parties and theater – second only to London for its worldly amusements’; Wilberforce acquired a taste for politics because his grandfather had been the mayor of Hull; ‘no less than 25 percent of all unmarried women in London were prostitutes’; all English law ‘sprang from this just and noble soil’ of the Bible). I grimace at his anachronisms (in the 1730s a man ‘preached in fields from Maine to Georgia and routinely addressed crowds of thirty thousand there too. That he accomplished this without microphones almost seems to throw natural selection into doubt’; Wilberforce is frequently compared to Scrooge and several other Dickens characters). Metaxas is very thin on dates in this book, no doubt not really understanding what they’re for. He’s also a bit shaky on choosing the right word (Wilberforce ‘was no drunkard and seems not to have joined in the venereal adventures of some of his friends’; ‘there was an almost sublime bestiality to George III’s sons’).

Shall we leave it there? Amazing Grace is a terrible book. Read the other, earlier biographies of Wilberforce instead.

Amazing Grace. William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (2007, Harper Collins) ISBN 978 0 06 117300 4

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (handheldpress.co.uk), in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

10 comments on “Amazing Grace

  1. Michelle Ann
    January 18, 2017

    Thanks for the warning. I read a very long biography of Wilberforce in the 1990s, which frustratingly frequently told you what he had for breakfast, but barely mentioned his other good works such as helping to set up what was to become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I was hoping a more compact and comprehensive biography would come along, but clearly this is not it!

  2. Kate
    January 18, 2017

    No, this is not a useful biography, because it’s so obviously untrustworthy. You can’t place any reliance on what the author tells you.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    January 18, 2017

    It sounds hideous! Definitely one to avoid!

  4. Pingback: Now posting on Vulpes Libris: a really terrible biography – Kate Macdonald

  5. Fariba
    January 18, 2017

    Thanks for the warning. His biography of Bonhoeffer was also terrible. When I read it I thought it was good until I began reading Bonhoeffer’s writings and his friend’s biography of Bonhoeffer. Now it’s clear how terrible Metaxas’ biography was. His work is nothing but propaganda. He completely ignored the social, political, and religious movements of the age.

  6. Kate
    January 18, 2017

    Fariba, that makes me feel so much better! My brother gave me this book for Christmas, and I am very carefully not drawing his attention to this review because I don’t want to offend him. i really hope he is not a particular Metaxas fan, but I think it was the subject matter that made him think this was the book for me. ‘Christian propaganda’ seems about right to me, in the rampantly fact-denying evangelical sense.

  7. Trinity
    March 11, 2017

    Interesting review! Can you recommend a historically accurate biography about Wilberforce? I would be interested in reading one.!

  8. Kate
    March 11, 2017

    The Steven Tomkins biography from 2007 seems to have got good reviews all round.

  9. Trinity
    March 11, 2017

    Thank you. I will check into it!

  10. Trinity
    March 11, 2017

    Hmmm. By the reviews on Amazon for Stephen Tomkin’s book, it doesn’t seem to bear well under too close a scrutiny, either… perhaps what author Nancy Pickard once said is true: History is the study of lies, because no witness ever recalls events with complete accuracy, not even an eyewitness…

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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