Saturday, March 17: Amazing Grace
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
The story behind Amazing Grace is yet another amazing example of how God calls the most unlikely of us to fulfill his purpose. Amazing Grace was first written as a poem of reflection by John Newton, in preparing a sermon for New Year’s Day in service as a priest. It conveys the humiliation and disgrace he felt in remorse from a much earlier time in his life, when he worked in the slave trade industry.
Newton’s mother was a Puritan who died when he was only seven years old. His father was a gruff sea captain who began taking him to sea when he was eleven. Newton had a rough upbringing and, as a teen, was known for his drunkenness and debauchery, which continued even after he was conscripted into service for the British Navy.
After his service, Newton began life in the slave trade. He was so disagreeable even to his shipmates that on one journey, he was left in West Africa with a slave trader who gave Newton to his wife, an African Royal who treated him just as poorly as she did her other slaves. Newton’s father sent a rescue party for him, but en route back to England, the ship was caught in a tumultuous storm that lasted many days, nearly sinking the ship. In exhaustion from endless pumping out water in an effort to save the ship, Newton was tied to the helm in hopes that he could at least keep it on course. In desperation, remembering his Puritan upbringing, Newton cried out for God’s mercy, after which the cargo miraculously shifted, filling a hole in the hull, after which the ship drifted to safety.
Although Newton’s prayers were answered, his life still did not radically change for many more years. Upon return to England, Newton continued in the slave trade as captain on several more voyages. It was not until 1754, after suffering a severe stroke, that Newton left the trade. In time, Newton immersed himself into the scriptures and began to reflect upon his former life. Ten years later, in 1764, Newton was ordained as an Anglican priest. In 1788, thirty-four years after leaving the slave trade, Newton finally gave a public account of the horrific conditions on the slave ships and a formal apology for his involvement in the industry, which he had come to view as an embarrassment and humiliation in his life. Newton became an advocate for individual freedom and greatly facilitated the abolishment of slavery in Great Britain in 1805 before his death that same year.
Amazing Grace was seemingly lost in England shortly after its writing, but re-surfaced in the United States in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s as a part of the Protestant revivals that swept this country. These meetings, which came to be known as “The Second Great Awakening”, helped form the roots of the Feminist and Abolitionist movements. Even today, Amazing Grace continues to be a source of comfort and inspiration to millions around the world.
During this time of Lent and personal reflection, researching the story behind Amazing Grace has helped give me renewed perspective as I reflect upon the regrets, humiliations and shortcoming in my own life. Often I question my own ability to serve because I think that I do not have the skills or talents that God needs, or that I am not good enough or worthy enough because of past transgressions. I must learn not to put limitations on God and his abilities to mold me, equip me, and use me as he sees fit. Amazing Grace reminds me that we must all be open, receptive and willing for God to use us and work through us in whatever capacity he calls us to serve.