Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 25th March 2007
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
Having spent the past week in Bristol, a city that was at the very centre of the slave trade, I have been very conscious of the anniversary we mark this weekend, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, an episode that is a disgrace to the history of any Christian country. Estimates of how many died and how many lived lives of utter misery vary, but tens of millions of people were transported fromAfrica.
The anniversary is being observed as Amazing Grace Sunday because the writer of the hymn, John Newton had been at the very centre of the trade. The conversion and faith of Newton were to shape the thinking of William Wilberforce, who led the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade.
John Newton’s mother, who was a Godly woman, died when he was seven years old. At age 11, with only two years schooling, John went to sea with his father. During his youth he served with both the Royal Navy and on merchant ships and, inevitably, he slipped into trouble. He was flogged for disobedience on one ship and spent fifteen months as a slave in west Africa at one point. The faith he had learned from his mother was forgotten and the standards of morality by which she lived meant nothing inNewton’s world.
John Newton slipped easily into a very amoral existence, taking no thought about his actions or about the pain and suffering he caused. He made money and spent it as quickly. He became deeply involved in the slave trade, transporting ship loads of slaves from west Africa without a sense of guilt at the horrifying deeds in which he was engaged. Newton became a commander of a slave ship, a man far gone from his mother’s teaching.
The one good influence during John Newton’s bad years was a young woman at home in England called Mary Catlett, whom he had met and fallen in love with when he was seventeen. Mary Catlett was able to turn Newton’s thoughts from profit built on human misery to thoughts of God. To us it seems extraordinary that John Newton was still able to continue as a slave trader while becoming much more devout in his life, but such were the values of the 18th Century.
Newton’s thinking became shaped by both his reading of the Bible and by the work of the Medieval Christian writer Thomas a Kempis, whose book The Imitation of Christ had a profound effect upon him.
In a state of spiritual turmoil, at the age of 23 Newton found himself in command of a ship that seemed it would be overwhelmed in storm. Newton believed he would be drowned and in desperation cried out to God for mercy. He survived the storm and with a grateful heart gave his life to God.
Shortly afterwards, back in England, he married Mary Catlett, four years later the turned his back on the seafaring life and on all involvement with the slave trade. Under the influence of George Whitefield and John Wesley, he entered the ordained ministry at the age of 39, serving in Olney in Buckinghamshire.
William Wilberforce first met John Newton when Wilberforce was a child. The church where Newton was the curate was the church Wilberforce attended. Wilberforce became reacquainted with Newton in his twenties when Wilberforce was on the brink of a career as a British Member of Parliament. Wilberforce’s outspokenness on the abolition issue may well have also led Newton to make his first public confession of guilt over his past involvement in the slave trade. In the film Amazing Grace, which went on general release on Friday, Wilberforce visits John Newton twice. The first time he asks Newton for advice about whether to leave politics and join the clergy. And, in hopes of using Newton’s testimony as a former slave trader, Wilberforce visits Newton for a second time, now at St. Mary Woolnoth Church inLondon. Here Wilberforce discovers that his former minister is blind. Wilberforce incorporated Newton’s confession into his plea for abolition. The vote to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empirefinally passed on 24th March 1807—the same year John Newton died.
Newton became known as a prolific hymn writer, contributing some 280 hymns to a book called Olney Hymns, which was used at the weekly prayer meetings in the parish, and not at church services.‘Amazing Grace’ was one of that collection and is a simple expression of John Newton’s experience of the ‘amazing grace of God’.
‘A wretch like me’, Newton describes himself. It was no overstatement. He had experienced the depths of human life in the slave trade: degradation, exploitation, violence, casual killing, and yet God reaches down to him to pull him out of this darkness. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved’ reflects a confidence in the power of God to bring him out of where he has been, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’, writes Paul in his First Letter to the Church at Corinth.
The man who faced death at sea, who was lost to this world, is saved from death, from the dangers, toils and snares. He recognizes that the hand of God is present protecting him, guarding him, guiding him, long before he even acknowledged God’s presence.
Saint Paul would have understood what John Newton was talking about when he said that grace had brought him thus far and that grace would lead him home. Writing to Timothy, Paul says, “join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time”. Before the beginning of time; God’s grace is there before the beginning and will be there after the end. Newton is confident in the Lord’s promise of good to come, when this flesh and heart fail.
Writing to the Philippians in the Epistle, Paul says, “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith”.
We have no righteousness of our own. Newton of all people knew this. We deserve nothing.We are owed nothing, yet God so loves us that he sends his Son to die for us.Newtonrealizes how low he is and how great God is.
As we mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we ask God for forgiveness for the past, and we ask that the God who touched the hearts ofNewton, Wilberforce and all who fought against slavery will touch the hearts of people in our own time with his amazing grace.