Wilberforce documentary airing on PBS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--One year after the movie "Amazing Grace" reintroduced America to William Wilberforce, a new documentary about the famous Christian abolitionist seeks to shed more light on the British man whose fight against slavery inspired Abraham Lincoln and countless other people of faith throughout the world.

"The Better Hour: The Legacy of William Wilberforce" is airing on PBS stations nationally beginning this month and also is available on DVD. (A list of broadcast times is available at www.TheBetterHour.com. Click on "TV Info.") Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the one-hour program details how Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, was driven by his faith to fight great odds for 20 years to end the slave trade in the British empire, finally succeeding in 1807.

Although Americans are prone to remember Lincoln when the subject of slavery arises, the former president himself mentioned Wilberforce's name in speeches.

Last year's Amazing Grace film -- so named because of Wilberforce's friendship with John Newton, writer of the famous hymn -- surprised some movie observers by grossing $21 million domestically. It was released during the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

"It's been a nice one-two punch," The Better Hour spokeswoman Sheila Weber said of the film and documentary, "because they came out with the feature film that highlighted the larger story, but it's very satisfying for people when they see the documentary because it fills in a lot of the gaps and it gives more content and more commentary. We have interviews with leading historians and scholars. And it's very inspiring -- it's not a dry and dull documentary."

The documentary gets its name from a tribute to Wilberforce written by the poet William Cowper, who said Wilberforce's effort led to "the better hour" for Britain.

Wilberforce already was a member of Parliament when he became a Christian, and he struggled in deciding whether he should stay in the legislature or become a clergyman within the Church of England. But Newton, himself a former captain of a slave ship who later became an abolitionist, urged Wilberforce to remain a legislator. Wilberforce's oratorical skills were well-respected and even feared by other legislators.

"God may have a purpose for you in politics," Newton is said to have told Wilberforce, according to Wilberforce expert Kevin Belmonte, who appears in the documentary.

In 1787 Wilberforce wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals]."

The slave trade was an evil almost beyond description. Slaves were taken from the west coast of Africa on a two- to three-month voyage to the West Indies, where they were sold. Conditions for the slaves aboard the ships were atrocious: They were kept under the deck, chained side by side. According to the Wilberforce 2007 campaign, each man had a space roughly six feet long, 16 inches wide; each woman had a space two inches shorter and the same width. They often had to lie in feces and urine, and many died of disease during the journey. It is estimated more than 10 million Africans were put aboard the ships, with perhaps more than 2 million dying during the journey.

At the beginning of Wilberforce's effort around 1787, many members of Parliament argued that abolishing the slave trade would collapse the economy, and MPs used all sorts of tactics to kill the bill, including giving opera tickets to Wilberforce's MP supporters the day of a scheduled vote (a tactic that worked). But 20 years later, some of those same members of Parliament supported Wilberforce when his bill overwhelming passed, 283-16.

Christian leaders say Wilberforce should serve as an example of how faith should drive believers to change society for the better by, for instance, ridding the world both of abortion, and, once and for all, slavery, which still exists in some parts of the world. Wilberforce's faith plays a significant role in the documentary.

"I've known about him for 40 years, and he has been something of an inspiration to me," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Commission, told Baptist Press.

Representatives with The Better Hour are encouraging churches and community groups to watch the documentary in small settings and discuss it afterward. A book, "Creating the Better Hour," is being released to coincide with the documentary. It has a foreword by Rick Warren and chapters written by such notables as Charles Colson. Additionally, The Better Hour is sponsoring a $10,000 contest for high school students. (Deadline is March 1.) Information is available at www.TheBetterHour.com.

"While [the documentary] will be satisfying to the faith community, it's also presented in a tone that will be really appropriate to show outside of the church," Weber said. "That's a good thing.... William Wilberforce is a wonderful icon of what it means to be a Christian."

Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press. "The Better Hour" documentary contains no offensive language but does contain drawings depicting nude slaves.

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