Amazing Grace.

John Newton (1725-1807) grew up the son of an English merchant ship captain.  From 1736 to 1742 he learned the sailor’s trade on voyages with his father.  In 1743 he was “pressed” into the Royal Navy; when he tried to desert, he got eight dozen from the “cat.”  Later he joined the crew of a slave ship bound for Sierra Leone, but fell out with the captain and was left ashore as a slave for several years.  Finally rescued from slavery himself, he nevertheless returned to working in the slave trade until 1754.

However, he had begun to undergo a long conversion to evangelical Christianity.  In time, Newton became a Protestant minister and then an abolitionist.[1]  In 1779, he published a collection of hymns he had written.  Among them was one now called “Amazing Grace.”  It remains a widely popular hymn,[2] probably because it is a lamentation suitable for funerals.[3]

However, I wonder if we are listening without hearing.  “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.”  It is, in its bare bones, a story of a deeply flawed human being “saved” by God’s grace.  In Christianity, God’s grace is “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it.”[4]

Until modern times, redemption stories like that of John Newton abounded.  They signified the liberation of the individual from the evil impulses that had held him or her in captivity.  Many stories celebrated the redemption of sinners.  They begin with Saint Paul, who described himself as having been the “chief of sinners” before his conversion experience.  John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1666) testified to his own redemption in a 17th Century England torn by political strife.  The “Second Great Awakening” (a Protestant religious revival that came at a time when Americans were overwhelmingly Protestant, c. 1790-1850) called people to abandon their sinful past and to live better, more rigorous lives.

People who had wallowed in bad behavior could alter their lives so dramatically that observers could scarcely credit that the same person had lived two so wildly different lives.  Thus, there used to be a way back for sinners.

Now there isn’t.  We live in a society that has become increasingly secularized.  The natural and social sciences have provided more satisfactory answers to many questions that the ones provided by religion.  Religious doctrines don’t have the same bite they once did.[5]  Apparently, that includes grace and redemption.  Then, Newton could offer “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.”  Now, you are for all time your worst words or deeds.  Who would publicly confess and try to make amends for their failings under such circumstances?

[1] He appears in the film recounting the contributions of Evangelical Christians to ending Britain’s role in the slave trade.  See: “Amazing Grace” (dir. Michael Apted, 2006).

[2] Check out the sample of versions available on Youtube.  https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Amazing+Grace

[3] For an alternative approach, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6kNHWh_RwY

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_in_Christianity

[5] This comes on top of, but is not caused by, the failings of some religious people.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Erg09oOpmo

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