Whether or not you’re religious, you’ve probably heard of the song Amazing Grace. It’s one of those Christian hymns that just about everyone has heard, or at least heard of, at some point. It was first published in 1779 by John Newton.
While you may think the named after John’s song is about John’s life, it’s not. Instead it’s about a man who was perhaps the first to be influenced by John’s moving life story and the song. It’s about a man who was perhaps the single most influential man in the abolishment of slavery in Britain. Let’s learn the true story behind the movie Amazing Grace.
Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found.
Was blind but now I see.
Whether or not you’re even religious, you’ve probably heard of the song Amazing Grace. It’s one of those Christian hymns that just about everyone has heard, or at least heard of, at some point. It was first published in 1779 by John Newton. Although John was a Christian when he wrote the song, he wasn’t always religious. His mother was, though, so his early childhood saw religion.
Sadly, his mother died when he was just six years old. When he was just eleven years old, John began his career at sea when he joined his father as an apprentice.
By his early 20s, John was working at one of the more popular occupations on the high seas at the time—slave trading. It wasn’t an easy life, and any time John had a near-death experience, he’d become more religious. Then, after it passed, he’d revert to his profane ways. In fact, the captain of the ship he worked on, the Greyhound, said John was one of the most profane men he’d ever met. For the captain of a slave ship, that’s saying something.
All of this changed in March of 1748, when the Greyhound was in a violent storm. It was another near-death experience, and once again the now 23-year-old John turned religious as he asked God to save them.
This storm was the turning point in John’s life. While he continued to be a slave runner until 1755, he grew increasingly regretful of the direction his life was going.
John wrote Amazing Grace based on such life experiences. After leaving his old life of slave trading behind, John was ordained by the Church of England in 1764 and Amazing Grace was first published in 1779.
In the movie John Newton is portrayed by Albert Finney, and while you may think the movie is about John’s life, it’s not. Instead it’s about a man who was perhaps the first to be influenced by John’s moving life story and the song. It’s about a man who was perhaps the single most influential man in the abolishment of slavery in Britain.
Although John Newton was the one to write the song Amazing Grace, the movie tells the story of William Wilberforce, who is played by Ioan Gruffudd. If you’ve never heard his name before, don’t worry, you’re not alone. William was born on August 24th, 1759, after John Newton had already left the slave trade.
William gained his fortune from his grandfather and uncle, who both passed when he was young and left him with quite an inheritance. As he grew, he earned a reputation for using his money to be kind to those less fortunate.
After attending college at St. John’s, Cambridge, he decided not to pursue a life in business. Instead, at the age of 21, William ran for office in the general election of 1780 as a representative for his hometown of Hull.
The movie begins in a scene where William meets a woman by the name of Barbara Spooner. We find out neither William or Barbara knew about their true purpose why they’re summoned to a restaurant. The purpose was to meet each other. It was a matchmaking by mutual friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton. In the movie, Henry Thornton is played by Nicholas Farrell and his wife, Marianne, is played by Sylvestra Le Touzel.
This matchmaking effort was true, and although the real Henry Thornton was a close friend of William’s, he wasn’t the one who introduced William and Barbara to each other. It was another friend of William’s: Thomas Babington. But since the character of Babington isn’t in the film, maybe that’s why they omitted this little detail and had Henry’s character fill the matchmaking role.
After this brief introduction, the movie flashes back to just after William started his political career. Although the movie doesn’t really mention an exact year here, it simply says “Fifteen years earlier”, we know from history that William and Barbara met on April 15th, 1797. So fifteen years before would be 1782, two years after William began his career in politics.
Here is where we meet some more characters that will play a big role in the film. Perhaps most notably is William Pitt, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Although the two Williams had passed at Cambridge, they never really became friends until after William Wilberforce started to run for public office.
In the movie, they use the name Wilber to talk about William Wilberforce and Pitt for William Pitt. While we don’t know if this is how the two friends referred to each other, since they have the same first name it wouldn’t surprise me. So for the sake of this clarity, I’ll do the same thing.
We’re also introduced to the song Amazing Grace for the first time as Wilber sings it in front of a rowdy crowd. That background element of the movie with William having a good singing voice is true. His good voice was something he’d always captivated people with.
In the movie, Wilber becomes a Christian and starts battling with whether or not he should continue his political career or drop out and follow a calling in the Christian Church. Here is when we’re introduced to some other important characters, Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano. In the film Thomas is played by Rufus Sewell, and Olaudah is portrayed by Youssou N’Dour.
Thomas has started a society and, together with Olaudah, they convince Wilber that they can offer a solution where he can both serve in a public office and do God’s work. That solution? Abolish the slave trade.
While we don’t know the specifics of how the conversations went down, the basic gist of this is true. Wilber became a Christian in 1784 after reading a book by William Law called A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
It seems William was a popular name at the time.
After becoming a Christian, Wilber was seriously considering dropping out of public office. So while the gist may be true, the timeline is stretched. We learned the film’s flashback started in 1782, and while a few events passed it doesn’t seem like long before Thomas and Olaudah come into the picture.
In truth, Thomas didn’t start his attempts to abolish the slave trade until 1787 when he formed the aptly named Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Henry Thornton was one of the early supporters of Thomas’ society, so it’s likely that he was the connection to Wilber, who joined the cause that same year.
So the flashback in the film started in 1782, but in truth Wilber didn’t become a Christian until 1784. And Thomas didn’t start his abolitionist movement until 1787.
Here the movie does bring in John Newton, the slave ship captain turned priest who wrote the hymn after which the movie is named. In the movie it’s John who convinces Wilber to stay in politics and fight the slave trade.
Again, we don’t know the exact specifics of the entire conversation but we do know this is true as well. According to an article on BBC’s website, John told Wilber:
“God has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation, maintain your friendship with Pitt, continue in Parliament, who knows that but for such a time as this God has brought you into public life and has a purpose for you.”
After Wilber chats with Thomas to tell him he’ll propose a bill in support of the abolitionist movement, the movie jumps forward again to “The Present Time” and we see Wilber and Barbara laughing as Henry and Marianne look on. They’re obviously still attempting to push their matchmaking on Wilber and Barbara.
Since the movie doesn’t give specific dates, there’s no way to know if their timeline is accurate but again the gist is pretty close. As we already learned, William Wilberforce and Barbara Spooner didn’t meet until April 15th, 1797. The two were married on May 30th, 1797. So it seems it was love at first sight for the happy couple and a quick marriage followed.
So while it’s possible the events in the movie happened between April and May, I would speculate it didn’t and the timeline was altered a bit for the film. Still, the basic gist there.
After this happens in the film, we hear Wilber make his first speech in Parliament against the slave trade. In truth, Wilber made his first speech against the trade on May 12th, 1789. It was a speech that lasted for three and a half hours. And while the movie doesn’t make any mention of this, his speech wasn’t the first time it was brought up.
The first time it was brought up was one year earlier, in May of 1788 by Lord Charles Fox. In the movie, Lord Fox is played by Michael Gambon. In his 1788 speech, Lord Fox denounced the slave trade and said it needed to be destroyed. After this William Dolben, who is played by Nicholas Day in the movie, proposed a bill to regulate the slave trade. The House of Lords rejected the proposal and wouldn’t even put it to a vote. But Pitt, who was prime minister at this point, threatened to resign. So they put it to a vote and it passed 56 to 5!
Of course, this was only to regulate the conditions on board the slave ships. And it’s highly unlikely any of the regulations were kept. But none of this is covered in the movie.
As a quick side note, the William Pitt in the movie was referred to by historians as William Pitt the Younger and his father, William Pitt the Elder, is the namesake of the city of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
In the film, Wilber continues to make his case against the slave trade. Together with Thomas and other members of the society, Wilber goes about collecting evidence against the slave trade. In the film this turned into a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures as their proof of the horrible conditions on board the slave ships. There’s a great gasp that arises from the Members of Parliament as the massive parchment is unraveled across the entire floor.
The details are a bit different, but yet again the gist is there. It was Thomas Clarkson who personally traveled over 7,000 miles around the United Kingdom to research what was actually happening on slave ships. And this wasn’t a signed petition that was rolled across the floor. All of this evidence was given to Wilber, and that’s what he presented in his first speech to Parliament in 1789. Presenting all of this evidence is why his speech was three and a half hours long.
This isn’t mentioned in the movie, but one of the slave ship’s captains told Thomas: “I’d rather live on bread and water and tell what I know of the slave trade, than live in the greatest affluence and withhold it.”
And the moment where Lord Charles Fox steps out to sign the petition probably wouldn’t have caused the ruckus it did in the movie. If you remember, it was he who first proposed abolishing the slave trade a year before.
After all of this, the movie finally mentions the marriage between Wilber and Barbara. The movie is nearly over, and the couple that had met just a month before they were wed finally say their vows on screen. So although the movie does make it seem like this is happening right after Barbara spent the night with Wilber, I still think this timeline was a bit stretched. But at least they got it right when Ioan Gruffudd’s version of Wilber says, “Barbara and I have discovered we’re prone to impatient and rash decisions.”
After their marriage, the movie explains a clever scheme that Thomas and Wilber bring to Pitt as he’s playing golf. Essentially, they’re going to take advantage of the growing rebellion in the American colonies and try to pass a bill that will remove the protection from ships flying the American flag. According to the film, 80% of the slave ships coming out of the West Indies are flying the American flag so they don’t get fired on by privateers.
There’s conflicting reports as to whether or not this scheme was ever proposed by Thomas, Wilber and the abolitionists. But the movie doesn’t give much context to this, and since it is possible it happened let’s set a bit of context to the scheme.
If you remember from history class, although they didn’t happen to officially be at war at the time, the French and English have had wars going back through most of known history. At the time of the movie, the latest conflict was the War of the Spanish Succession which saw France and England on opposite sides of the war in 1714. Needless to say, in the late 1700s there was a lot of tension between the French and the English.
This tension was something privateers turned into a living. Privateers are ships owned by private citizens. They’re not military, but they use their ships to turn war into a profit. Think of them like a private security firm. A country would allow privateers to board and pillage ships of their enemies. Since it wasn’t their military it wasn’t technically war, but it still didn’t help the tensions ease at all.
To avoid being boarded by French privateers, British ships coming from the West Indies—that’s what we now refer to as the Caribbean back across the ocean would often fly an American flag. Since the French liked the fact that the Americans were rebelling against the British, they wouldn’t attack their ships.
So the scheme was to remove the protection from the British government for ships flying an American flag. That meant British privateers would legally be allowed to board and pillage ships with an American flag. According to the film, that’s about 80% of the slave ships. So it’d make a significant dent in the slave trade.
Again, there’s conflicting reports about this but many historians think it’s highly likely this was proposed. It makes sense, and it was a sneaky way of using the anti-war sentiment in Britain against the Americans who were revolting as a means to an end in the abolitionist movement.
But whether or not it was proposed, what we do know is that scheme did not come to fruition.
The movie doesn’t mention this, but on April 18th, 1791, Wilber introduced another bill to abolish slave trade. Pitt and Lord Fox were some of the principle supporters of the bill. But the slave trade was a huge part of the British economy, so the bill was defeated the following day by a vote of 163 to 88.
Just to give you an idea of what they were up against, according to a great article over at the BBC’s website, the slave trade in Britain at the time was comparable to the IT or housing industries today. It was huge, and it made a lot of people very powerful and very wealthy. And you and I both know how eager people in power are to give up that power and wealth for moral reasons.
Then in 1796, Wilber proposed another bill to abolish the slave trade. This time, the results were devastating. The timing of the vote happened to occur when a new opera hit London, and about a dozen of the Members of Parliament (MPs) were either at the opera or just out of town.
This vote lost by just four votes.
Thomas Clarkson was devastated. We have documentation of something Thomas wrote in his diary after the vote.
“To have all our endeavours blasted by the vote of a single night is both vexatious and discouraging.”
After this vote, Thomas decided to take a break. Everything he had worked for since forming the society in 1787—almost an entire decade of his life and he was so close. But it didn’t happen because some of those voting were at the opera. He had to question their priorities. And after such a devastating blow, it’s only human to wonder if you’re fighting a battle that you’ll never win.
Thomas left the abolitionist movement he helped start and struggled to build. He stayed away for eight years.
He returned in 1804 with a new vigor. He was determined, and started by doing what he had done before. He toured the United Kingdom and gathered damning evidence against the slave trade. Evidence that Parliament couldn’t turn away.
On May 30th, 1804, Wilber introduced another abolition bill. It languished there for months without even going for a vote. Many of the supporters he could count on were on holiday and he feared the bill would be easily defeated. So he waited until the following year.
It was defeated again. This time by seven votes.
The next year, 1806, the King George III approached a man who was a huge help in the fight against the slave trade, Lord William Grenville, and invited him to restructure the Whig political party with new leadership. Lord Grenville took advantage of this, and put others with the same view on the slave trade in place.
Lord Fox took advantage of this almost immediately, and proposed a bill to ban the slave trade in any colonies captured by the United Kingdom. He was nibbling at the edges, taking victories where he could and getting a sense for how the new people in power would affect voting. The bill passed 114 to 15.
Now the next step was to get the whole of the United Kingdom to abolish the slave trade.
Toward the end of the movie, it picks up the pace of the story a bit. John Newton gets old and goes blind. And at the very end of the movie, a vote is taken. The result is 283 to 16 in favor of abolishing the slave trade.
As you can probably guess by now, the gist of this is all true even if there are details that have been altered a bit or skipped over. The first detail that isn’t mentioned was the death of Lord Charles Fox. He passed away at age 57 on September 13th, 1806. Sadly, the fight that he started by proposing the abolition of the slave trade in 1788 was a fight he would never see come to fruition.
Just a couple months after his death, in January of 1807, Wilber proposed a bill to abolish the slave trade yet again. This time, just like in the movie, it passed. And the voting numbers were correct in the film. 283 votes to 16. The slave trade was officially abolished!
According to the bill, any captain who continued trading slaves were subject to a fine of £100 for each and every slave found on board. With many slave ships holding between 300 to 600 slaves at a time you can start to do the math on the numbers.
The movie ends here, but this isn’t the end of our story.
Two months after the bill passed, in March of 1807, the United States passed their own abolishment of slave trade in the Atlantic. It wasn’t an abolishment of slavery overall, but the country that had just recently broken free of the British government had certainly been influenced by the passing of this bill in Parliament.
A few months later, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton, passed away. He died at the age of 82 on December 21st, 1807.
While the movie doesn’t mention this, Wilber wasn’t trying to abolish slavery as a whole. Just the slave trade. In fact, after the slave trade was abolished a man by the name of Thomas Buxton took up the charge to try to abolish slavery as a whole. Wilber opposed this. He published a pamphlet in 1807 saying:
“It would be wrong to emancipate [the slaves]. To grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only their masters’ ruin, but their own. They must [first] be trained and educated for freedom.”
So the slave trade may have been abolished, but slavery in the United Kingdom was still legal. There was still money to be made. As is often the case just making something illegal doesn’t stop people from trying to skirt around the law.
It became common practice for slave ship captains who were still trying to continue transporting slaves to try to lessen their fine when they saw a British military ship on the horizon. Sadly, this meant throwing slaves off the side of the ship into the ocean. It was horrific, and surely not what Wilber had intended at all with the bill.
But even though Wilber didn’t want to abolish slavery right away, that was his eventual goal. So he continued his work, but sadly not for long. Throughout the movie there’s constant points where we see Wilber’s health isn’t the greatest. And this is true. After what amounted to his life’s work was achieved, it didn’t take long for his already poor health to continue to decline.
By 1812, Wilber was forced to resign his seat in Parliament due to poor health. He still tried to stay in Parliament and took another seat that required a lot less work. From this seat he introduced bills that would help abolish slavery by making the importation of slavery illegal. He was trying to take a slower approach to easing a United Kingdom that relied so heavily on slaves to getting rid of them.
But this, too, soon proved to be too much. He started to lose his eyesight in the 1820s and made his last speeches to the House of Commons in Parliament in 1824. He finally left Parliament for good in 1825.
His final public appearance was in April of 1833 when he made an anti-slavery speech in Kent. In May, a bill for the abolishment of slavery was introduced in Parliament. On July 26th, Parliament gathered to hear a third reading of the anti-slavery bill officially known as the Slavery Abolition Act. According to biographer William Hague, who wrote a biography on William Wilberforce, after this reading Wilber received an update on the anti-slavery bill that was in Parliament. As part of this update, he was made aware of concessions by Members of Parliament that guaranteed the bill would pass.
Three days later, on July 29th, 1833, William Wilberforce died at the age of 73 from a bout of influenza he had been fighting for months.
On August 28th, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act received Royal Assent and officially banned slavery in the United Kingdom.