I have been musing about this since I saw Fiona’s latest meditation with this title this week. Of course it is a very well known hymn sung in and out of church in many contexts. You may also be aware that its author John Newton had a very dubious and colourful life in all ways – as a drunk, a deserter; he was profane, he lied and cheated as well taking part in the slave trade in the 1700’s. This was before his conversion to Christianity and his actual conversion was slow… oh so slow! He heard God speak to him first in a violent storm on a slave ship in the Atlantic Ocen and after that he had several revelations and profound engagements with with God through reading and life experiences. However, he still retained many of his old ways and it was actually years before he was ‘fully’ converted and left behind the last vestiges of his ‘wretched’ life. He once said of himself:
John Newton, 1778
The words to ‘Amazing Grace’ were penned by Newton in 1773, probably to illustrate or compliment a sermon at a prayer meeting – we don’t really know. The words may or may not have related to his time as a slave trader – we also don’t know that for sure. What it does illustrate is that Newton was so totally aware of his own sin and wretched state before God that the title and opening line have true resonance as the only thing that can save him and all of humankind. As far as I am aware, there isn’t a statue to Newton in any significant place. If there were then, although I applaud the sentiment behind the pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue, I would be much more startled to see the same thing happen to Newton’s statue if it existed. To tear it down as if it never existed is to suggest that some human beings have no capacity for change and redemption in their lives and if we start to believe there is no salvation – even for the worst of humanity – then we are living in a much more fearful world than before. I do hope that the profound experience of God’s Grace for ALL humanity is as real now as it was to Newton then. The irony of Newton’s lyrics is that part of history is that the song was adopted as a spiritual sung by black African slaves to engender strength, hope and encouragement. All of humanity stands under God’s Grace.
It is possible to wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement and campaign to stamp out racism and also to acknowledge that imperfect humanity needs redemption, grace and forgiveness to effect real change. We can’t just wipe things out without learning and we need historical examples of people who changed. It may have taken them some time, but they changed. If Saul had not responded to the vision of Christ he saw on the road to Damascus, we would not have the insightful theology into the human condition that we have today from Paul’s writings. He is another ‘wretched’ man who considered himself ‘the least of the disciples’. He changed, was redeemed and knew God’s Grace.
‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’