Per Fidem Intrepidus means "Fearless Through Faith". My courage isn't my own, it comes from the Holy Spirit, it's my faith in God and my personal savior Christ Jesus that calms my fears and allows me to move forward in this fallen world. Personally I'm afraid of a lot of stuff, but having the faith that Jesus adopted me as his little, sin filled, brother keeps me going.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

He Wrote My Song

When confronted by evangelical atheists we're occasionally confronted with personal opinions often disguised as a question but are actually meant as an accusation. These opinions almost always come from a source that knows little about the bible. Sometimes it's tough to keep personal feelings at bay, especially when confronted with strange and false accusations, and few converts are made through angry confrontation. 

One of the complaints that the evangelical atheists have is that in their eyes the Bible encourages slavery, if they actually read the bible with an open mind they would see that the Bible is not encouraging slavery, but it does encourage slaves. As for slavery, the Bible has a different effect, which is a subject for a different blog entry, because today I want to talk about the effect the bible has had on a particular slaver who in turn had a particular effect on me. 

John Newton was born in London on July 24, 1725, the son of a merchant ship commander who was stationed in the Mediterranean. His mother died when he was six, and when John was eleven he went to sea with his dad, and made six voyages, which was probably the greatest 'Take Your Kid To Work Day' ever. At the age of 19 John was impressed into service on the H.M.S. Harwich, a man-of-war. Being impressed (or press-ganged) is not volunteering, nor even being drafted. It's being kidnapped. His dad stepped in and used his influence to get John a position as midshipman (officer in training) but John detested the Harwich and attempted to desert the ship. He was caught however, stripped to the waist, tied to the grating and  received a flogging of a dozen lashes and reduced in rank to common seaman.

At his own request he got transferred to a slave ship, the Pegasus. Aboard the Pegasus John began to mock the captain mercilessly and stirred up a lot of discontent among the crew. It became so bad that the crew chained him up like one of the slaves they were carrying. The Pegasus abandoned John Newton in West Africa where he became the prisoner of Amos Clowe, a notorious slaver. Clowe was married to an African duchess named Princess Peye and he gave her Newton as a slave. He, along with other slaves was cruelly mistreated and abused by her. Whenever John referred to this point of his life he would say he was "once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa."

John's father begged a friend to look for John, and this friend located John and successfully rescued him and they set sail for England on the merchant ship Greyhound. The master of the Greyhound who was used to a culture of hard men, sailors who swore and used oaths as if it was their only language, would describe John Newton was the most profane man he had ever met. John was cautioned by the master for not only using the worse language the Captain had ever heard in his life but also for inventing much of it which "exceeded the very limits of verbal depravity"

One night a storm blew up sweeping men overboard and tossing the ship around like a toy. The crew of the Greyhound battled the storm for hours, John and a shipmate tied themselves to a pump to keep from being washed away and for hours manually tried to pump the storm surge out of the Greyhound. As the ship filled with water John, in desperation, called out to God, begging for deliverance. As he did so, the cargo of camwood and beeswax broke free in the flooded hold and floated up, plugging the hole and prevented the ship from sinking. 

Realizing that he was delivered by the mercy of God John began to study religious material and the Bible and by the time they reached England he had fully accepted the tenants of Christianity. The date of his salvation was March 10, 1748, an anniversary he'd mark for the rest of his life.

But as any Christian knows, conversion is a work that continues for the rest of your life. When you're born again, you're truly born again and you have to also have to grow and mature again. John Newton continued in the slave trade for a couple of years and as he sailed he educated himself learning Latin among other subjects. He quit swearing, drinking, and gambling, and although he worked in the slave trade he gained a considerable amount of sympathy for the slave. 

In 1754 John suffered a stroke and quit sailing all together, and in 1755 he became a tide surveyor (tax collector) in the Port of Liverpool. In his spare time he learned Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) and became well known as an evangelical lay minister. Eventually in 1764 he became a priest in the Church of England

In 1788, 34 years after he had retired from the slave trade, Newton broke a long silence on the subject with the publication of a forceful pamphlet "Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade", in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage, and apologized for "a confession, which ... comes too late ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." A copy of the pamphlet was sent to every MP, and sold so well that it swiftly required reprinting. Newton has been called hypocritical for continuing to participate in slavery after his conversion but Newton himself said that looking back at his life he sees he was not fully Christian during the time he was a slave trader. 

Personally I think John was fully Christian as a slave trader, but as I mentioned, conversion is a very long process. Yes he was Christian, but was God done with him? No, not by a long shot. Had Newton became an abolitionist at the moment of his conversion he wouldn't have effected much of anything. He probably would have starved to death looking for work. But by 1788 Newton was a public figure, he was rector of St. Mary Woolnoth  a church in downtown London that was frequented by large congregations including William Wilberforce who would become a leader in the abolition campaign in England. John's words carried weight in 1788, and he influenced many influential members of the London elite. I have no way of proving it, but I personally believed that John Newton was one of the tools that God used to remove slavery from Christendom. Newton lived long enough to see Parliament pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807 eliminating the slave trade in the British Empire. I personally think that at that point God turned to North America and thought "Those yanks are going to need stronger persuasion"

But before this, at his first parish, Olney in Buckinghamshire, some time around 1760 John Newton began to write hymns with William Cowper. John needed to write a hymn for a sermon on New Years Day in 1773  so he took a look back at his life and wrote a simple little hymn, a hymn that has survived the centuries. The hymn that has been recorded, played, and sang millions of times in hundreds of languages. 

And it's the only hymn I can't sing

Because when I do, and the first words come out, I can feel my big brother, Jesus' hand on my shoulder and I can hear him whisper softly "John and I wrote this for everyone, you especially" and the tears begin to flow because I know that I'm the wretch the song refers to.

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