Today is January 1, 2019, the 250th-anniversary of….wait. Before you start celebrating, a little background might be in order.
It begins with a man named John.
Born in 1725, he spent the first seven years of his life in England. With his father at sea, his loving mother doted on her son, taking him to church every Sunday and teaching him to pray.
Then his mother died.
Begging his father to let him come with him, John went to sea, spending most of the next 20 years away from England. His father proved to be a strict disciplinarian and one unable to express love and affection. Growing up on the sea, it wasn’t long before John lost his boyhood innocence and learned to curse like a sailor. Worse yet was his surly and arrogant manner. Every Captain he served under, while initially impressed with his sailing skills, soon grew weary of his arrogance and blasphemous ways.
Once flogged for desertion, John, having long abandoned the faith of his youth, became the “Captain of my own soul.” His reputation was that of a foul-mouthed, irresponsible troublemaker.
He would make up songs that mocked the ship’s captain and often incited the crew to be disrespectful if not mutinous. During storms, he would ridicule those who cried out to God to save them. During lightning storms, he even laughed at God and taunted Him by saying, “You missed me!” His blasphemous manner caused many of his ships Captains to see him as a curse, a Jonah.
He eventually landed a job on a slave ship. Five thousand ships a year left England headed to Africa to pick up “cargo” bound for the Americas. He discovered that slaves were packed into the ship’s hold so tightly that it was common to lose 20-30 percent of them on the six week trip across the Atlantic. But John’s heart was elsewhere, hoping the money earned on such a voyage would allow him to marry his sweetheart.
In 1748, John, at the age of twenty-three, was returning to England on the slave ship Greyhound, when they encountered a deadly storm that threatened to sink the ship. With sails damaged, masts broken, and water filling its hold, the crew worked round the clock pumping the water out. It seemed the towering waves would soon overturn the barely floating wreck of a ship. For once, John turned inward and contemplated his mis-spent life. Scripture verses from his youth flashed across his mind. Fearing the worst, John, convinced he did not deserve God’s grace, nevertheless now pleaded for it. He prayed for forgiveness.
Alas, with the broken ship now adrift and food and water supplies dwindling, his Captain grew desperate. Recalling John and his blasphemous ways, he became convinced that John was the source of their troubles. Before John could explain his new found faith, the Captain had him bound with rope and was about to cast this cursed Jonah overboard when a wind filled their tiny hand-made sails and land was immediately sighted. Given this reprieve, John vowed never to curse again. He started going to church. He married his sweetheart. He purposed to change his ways.
Despite his conversion, John still considered slavery an honorable profession. Given the job as First Mate and later as Captain, John committed himself to set a godly example for his crew. He held Sunday services aboard his slave ship and sought to teach his men how to pray even as they sailed to the Americas to sell their cargo of slaves. John committed to treating the slaves with more care and became the first Captain not to lose a single slave on a voyage from Africa.
But as John grew in his understanding of God’s grace, his work as a slaver unsettled him until he finally gave it up. Taking the job as a Tide Surveyor at the Liverpool Custom House allowed John time to study the Scriptures. Seizing the opportunity, he heard preachers like George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley. He soon decided to pursue a career in the ministry, but when given the opportunity to speak from a pulpit, he struggled, until his friends told him to simply share his story. Ordained in the Church of England in 1764, he soon began to draw thousands of people to hear him preach. Known as an Anglican with evangelical leanings, he loved to include hymns during worship, but there were so few to choose from. He began writing them himself, often to reflect the topic of the next Sunday’s sermon.
So it was that 250 years ago today, on New Year’s Day 1769, John shared a new hymn with his congregation, a hymn recalling the sins of his past, his slaving days, and his experience of receiving God’s grace.
The opening verse,
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
Singing the song for the first time, brought tears to his congregation. Surprisingly, it would not be published for eleven years.
You see John was John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace. But his story doesn’t end there.
Some years before, John Newton had befriended a child named William. William grew up to become one of the youngest men at the age of 21 ever elected to Parliament. A few years later William became a Christian and sought out his old mentor John Newton. William struggled to understand what God was calling him to do. Though talented, wealthy, and powerful, William wondered if he should leave the political life and go into the ministry? Newton told William that, “My dear lad, God has indeed given you a rare gift. He brought you to a position of national influence so that you can do good. Many men can preach, William, but few can affect the heart of a nation. God can use you in politics. And we need you there, serving your nation while you serve your God.”
It took twenty more years, but renewed with a purpose to end the slave trade, William Wilberforce became the driving force that in 1807 outlawed the transport of slaves throughout the British Empire. When Wilberforce brought the good news to Newton and thanked him for his support, Newton is said to have replied, “My memory is nearly gone, but I can remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior!”
John Newton died later that year in 1807.
Two hundred fifty years ago today, Amazing Grace was sung for the first time. The words, penned by a one-time slave-trading reprobate of a man, attested to the unlimited grace available to all who come to Christ. Today, it is one of America’s most beloved hymns because maybe, just maybe, so many of us can relate to its message as a personal testimonial.
I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.