One of my favorite phrases is “amazing is not the word” to describe anything so outlandish that normal expressions simply cannot do justice to the situation. Still, in a couple of weeks when the “Amazing Grace” is released on video, you will be able to see first-hand one of the most incredible stories in our fairly recent history which is so inspiring that words are hard to find to explain it.

It is the tale of William Wilberforce, John Newton, the end of the English slave trade and the story behind the epic hymn “Amazing Grace”.

Set in early 19th century Britain, a time when Parliament was suddenly brought under the leadership of William Pitt (the younger) as the youngest Prime Minister in the Empire’s history, this narrative is a tribute to leadership on several levels.

Dr. Robert “Bob” Brown, and his wife, Joan, two of my valued friends from over in Tazewell County’s beautiful Cove area, have sent along information about this same story. Although Dr. Brown and I often share “football” radio time, the history of the song and the events surrounding it has been a favorite topic of conversation for several months. It is a fascinating account.

Slavery in the British Empire led fairly directly to its spread across the Atlantic. The bond between the English and the United States was forged for that and a host of other reasons, often economic and nearly as frequently social. Cutting ties was painful and often unhealthy in the late 1770s as the 13 colonies broke away for “freedom” of their own. When Pitt took office in 1783 England was in an uproar because of the recent loss during the Revolution.

Although Pitt’s government never made slavery or its abolition an official position, he maintained a personal opposition throughout his lifetime.

Part of the reason was the financial gain enjoyed by English merchants, whose coffers were being filled because of trade around the globe. That often meant slaves were producing or moving goods so the “ruling class” was fairly content to maintain the status quo.

Along came Pitt’s best friend, the diminutive Wilberforce. He was a politician, too, but one of those rare public servants who took his God more seriously than his King. It was not always that way. In fact, as a younger man, Wilberforce said he did not want to embrace the Christian faith fully because he was afraid he would lose all of his invitations to the best parties in England. Once he found that faith, however, there was no stopping him. Slowing, yes. Sometimes, illness and sometimes political opposition kept Wilberforce from achieving his ultimate earthly goal. Still, he never gave up.

As a member of the House of Commons, he tirelessly worked, as he put it, to “reform both manners, and the slave trade.” One year, he and his supporters brought a petition before Parliament with some one million signatures – a full one-tenth of Britain’s entire population – of those opposed to continuing slavery.

Wilberforce’s old pastor, John Newton, was one of his inspirations. It was Newton, the former slave ship captain turned pastor, who provided key information in the fight against slavery. Newton could never forgive himself for the thousands of African slaves he had transported over the years. Instead, he turned for forgiveness to a higher power.

Although he lost his sight eventually, Newton could see that the enormously popular Wilberforce and a group of dedicated friends including William Clarkson, the former slave Olaudah Equiano, Hannah Moore, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, and Wilberforce’s dedicated wife, Barbara, could with the tacit support of Prime Minister Pitt, win the battle if they would persevere.

That they did. A year after Pitt’s death, with the “door open” at last and no opposition from the monarchy remaining, Wilberforce in grateful tears watched as Parliament ended slavery in the British Empire in 1807. Freedom’s champion died peacefully three days later.

His legacy has been celebrated from Westminster Abbey and in the words of leaders from Pitt to Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King. After changing the world, Wilberforce defined his belief by saying that his religion was not a geographical term, but a moral one.

Amazing is truly the word.

Larry Hypes is a Tazewell High School teacher and Daily Telegraph columnist.