Amazing Grace is one of the best-known Christian hymns. It was written by John Newton and is a testimony of his own experience of God’s grace. John’s father was the captain of a merchant ship and, when he was just 11 years old, John made his first sea voyage with his father. His mother was a Christian and prayed that John would come to know Jesus as his Saviour. She died when John was still a child.
When he was 19 years old, John was forced into serving on a man-of-war ship. He found the conditions on board intolerable. He deserted, but was recaptured and publicly flogged. Later he volunteered to serve on a slave ship sailing to Sierra Leone, in West Africa. There he sank even deeper into degradation when he became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. When he was 23 years old he was rescued by a friend of his father. He became the captain of his own ship and was involved in the slave trade.
On 10 March 1748 John’s ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Donegal and almost sank. John woke in the middle of the night and, realising that the ship was filled with water, called out to God. He promised that if God would spare his life he would spend the rest of his life serving God. Amazingly the cargo shifted and sealed the hole in the ship which drifted to safety. John knew that God had heard his prayer and saved his life. Later he became an Anglican minister and collaborated with William Wilberforce in seeking the abolition of the slave trade.
John never stopped being amazed at God’s grace to him. He had lived a very wicked life, but God had not treated him as he deserved. God had watched over him and had saved “a wretch” like him. He was amazed that Jesus came not to call righteous people but sinners, like him, to repentance. He knew that God would always be with him and had given him a certain hope for the future. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”
The deeply moving story of Solomon Northup is told in the prize-winning film “12 Years a Slave”. Solomon was a Negro free man who lived in Saratoga, New York. He was a skilled carpenter and violinist and was happily married with 2 children. When he was 32 years old he was cruelly deceived by two men who offered him a highly paid job as a musician with their travelling circus. Without telling his wife, who was working away in a nearby town, he travelled with them to Washington, D.C.
Soon after arriving there Solomon awoke to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When he asserted his rights as a free man, he was savagely beaten and warned never again to mention his past life. He was taken by ship to New Orleans where he was sold as a slave. He managed to send a letter to his family with a sympathetic sailor, but because his family did not know where he was they were unable to rescue him.
Solomon’s first owner was a cotton planter who treated him fairly well. After two years, however, he was sold to a notoriously cruel planter whom he served for 10 years. During that time Solomon suffered great cruelty and was also required to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them when they misbehaved. Eventually Solomon met Samuel Bass, a white abolitionist from Canada. Bass, at great risk to himself, sent letters to Solomon’s wife and friends in Saratoga. As a result Solomon was found and liberated from slavery and was able to return to his family.
The love and grace of God can change people who have been guilty of great evil and give hope to all who are oppressed. John Newton, the hymn writer, was the captain of a slave ship. When he was in a terrible Atlantic storm, which threatened the ship and his life, he cried out to God for mercy and put his trust in Jesus. In his best-known hymn he speaks of the “Amazing Grace” that “saved a wretch like me.” In later years when he was a minister in London he encouraged the young William Wilberforce in his successful campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Newton never forgot God’s amazing kindness to him. He put a text over the mantelpiece in his study which read, “Remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”
Does it really matter what we believe about God? Is there a link between what we believe and how we live? Can private morality and public morality be separated? These are important questions in our increasingly secular society. Recent events have raised the question of integrity in the BBC and in the lives of public figures in politics and entertainment. There is an understandable expectation that those who influence the lives of so many people should act with integrity both in their public and private lives. Sadly, it seems, this has not always been the case.
Yet this raises an important question. What is the foundation for integrity in both our public and private lives? Is it based on our sense of duty to society or to our fellow human beings? Is it something we can teach children in our schools and so ensure that they become good citizens? There are countries in the world which seek to inculcate a spirit of obedience and duty in their citizens, but this is usually imposed by a regime of strict laws and very little personal freedom.
The history of the USA has been shaped by Christians who believed the Bible. Their faith in God and in Jesus Christ provided the framework for both their private and public lives. Whilst they held their own beliefs firmly they did not seek to impose these beliefs on others. They maintained the freedom of all people to practice their religion. The Pilgrim Fathers left England and established a new colony in North America because they were seeking religious freedom. Their convictions have shaped the history and values of the USA.
Jesus taught that there are two great commandments which cannot be separated. They are the essential basis for both moral integrity and personal freedom. The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Because he loved God William Wilberforce fought for the abolition of slavery. Lord Shaftesbury fought for better working conditions and schools for children from poorer homes. Elizabeth Fry campaigned for better conditions for women in prison. Florence Nightingale, out of her experience in the Crimea War, became the founder of modern nursing. For each of these people their experience of God’s love in Jesus inspired in them a love for those around them and a determination to do them good.