Amazing Grace: a monument to salvation

Redemption song: One man's journey from slave trader to freedom fighter.
Redemption song: One man's journey from slave trader to freedom fighter.

In 1779 an English clergyman named John Newton published the words to one of the most well known and popular songs of all time, Amazing Grace.

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.

The words are simple and powerful in their own right.

However, it is the story behind them which is truly amazing.

It is a story which begins upon a slave trader's ship.

Newton had found himself part of the horrific business of sailing across the globe to capture people who could be taken to England and sold into slavery.

This was a brutal business and Newton was a brutal man.

Conditions on his ships were such that many of his captives did not survive the journey.

Should a slave survive the journey, what awaited them in Britain was often far worse.

Newton wrote the following, published in his "Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade" in 1808.

"Perhaps [the slaves] would wish to spend the rest of their days on ship-board, could they know beforehand the nature of the servitude which awaits them on shore; and that the dreadful hardships and sufferings they have already endured [on the Middle Passage] would, for the most of them, only end in the excessive toil, hunger and the excruciating tortures of the cart-whip, inflicted at the whim of an unfeeling overseer, proud of the power allowed him to punish whom, and when, and how he pleases."

Yet all of this was to change when in 1748 Newton's ship was hit by a massive storm.

In his moment of desperation he cried out to God for mercy.

Mercy is the right word since Newton certainly didn't deserve to get out of that storm alive.

Had he been washed overboard, never to be heard of again it would have been nothing less than he deserved.

Newton did survive and that moment was the beginning of a conversion experience for him.

One which in time would see him not only leave the slave trade, but eventually become a key voice in pushing for it to be abolished.

In 1764 Newton entered a Christian ministry where possibly his greatest contribution to the abolition movement was made.

Newton became friends with a young MP named William Wilberforce who was contemplating leaving parliament to become a Christian minister.

However following Newton's advice to "serve God where he was", Wilberforce remained in Parliament where he devoted his efforts to abolishing the slave trade.

It's a wonderful story which inspired the brilliant 2006 film Amazing Grace.

One reason that this story resonates with me so much is the hope which it holds out.

As I write, the news is filled with stories of monuments being defaced and removed because those being remembered were such deeply flawed people.

Newton was clearly a deeply flawed man.

Yet his most famous work stands as a monument to the ability of God to graciously save even one as wretched as him.

It is a hymn which gives a glimpse into a life utterly turned around.

The man who had profited of the misery of others had given his life over to fighting against the very evils he once perpetrated.

I hope I never do anything as horrific as a young John Newton did.

What I do hope is that I will be able to do what he did in his later years.

To look back on my failings, not without hope, but secure in the knowledge that the Amazing grace of God has saved this wretch, just as it saved Newton.

Reverend David Robinson is vicar of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Glen Innes