Summary: A sermon for "Amazing Grace" Sunday [February 25, 2007] based upon the Life of John Newton and his great hymn "Amazing Grace."
Faith’s Review and Expectations
I used to think America’s favorite hymn, Amazing Grace, was a bit overdone: "... that saved a wretch like me." Really now!
But the author was a wretch, a moral recluse. Its author, John Newton, had commanded an English slave ship for a portion of his life.
This well-known and beloved hymn has a story and a message that still resonates today. Originally titled "Faith’s Review and Expectations," this hymn was included in soldiers’ hymnbooks during the Civil War.
It was sung in the 1960s on freedom marches in the South.
It was the most requested hymn played in memorial services following the tragedy of 9/11.
There are 972 arrangements of this hymn, and it is a favorite of presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush.
It was even performed by Arlo Guthrie on the opening night at Woodstock!
It can even be sung to the tune of Green Sleeve and the theme-tune of Gilligan’s Island (a camp favorite).
I am referring, of course, to the popular and powerful hymn Amazing Grace.
PRAYER for Spiritual Anointing
The author of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton, has an astounding story. Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who taught him to memorize Scripture, he had long since given up any religious convictions. His mother died when he was a child forcing him to be raised by his father, a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. Therefore, Newton fell into a life of rebellion and sin that led him to participate in one of the most insidious of all human institutions: the slave trade.
You know what that meant. Ships would make the first leg of their voyage from England nearly empty until they would anchor off the African coast. There tribal chiefs would deliver to the Europeans stockades full of men and women, captured in raids and wars against other tribes. Buyers would select the finest specimens, which would be bartered for weapons, ammunition, metal, liquor, trinkets, and cloth. Then the captives would be loaded aboard, packed for sailing. They were chained below decks to prevent suicides, laid side by side to save space, row after row, one after another, until the vessel was laden with as many as 600 units of human cargo.
Captains sought a fast voyage across the Atlantic’s infamous "middle passage," hoping to preserve as much as their cargo as possible, yet mortality sometimes ran 20% or higher. When an outbreak of smallpox or dysentery occurred, the stricken were cast overboard. Once they arrived in the New World, blacks were traded for sugar and molasses to manufacture rum, which the ships would carry to England for the final leg of their "triangle trade." Then off to Africa for yet another round. John Newton transported more than a few shiploads of the 6 million African slaves brought to the Americas in the 18th century.
When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.
Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. He was rescued by a sea captain who had known John’s father. John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one which plied the slave trade.
It was a book he found on board--Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ--which sowed the seeds of his conversion.
On March 10, 1748, a storm threatened to engulf his ship and crew. Through God’s intervention, the slave trader was radically converted. He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him. His past was brought vividly before him, and then he turned to his Testament and found help in these two verses: "How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?" (Luke 11:13); and, "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine" (John 7:17).
He understood the facts of the Gospel, but also that the Holy Spirit alone could enable him to understand these things. Accordingly in his own way he prayed for light and help.
For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace has bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”