The malls and the Main Streets fall silent. The ringing of cash registers fade in ghostly echoes across silent streets. But the Christ born in a manger 2,000 years ago lives through the centuries, liberating the hearts of sinners and transforming the lives of the wicked.
The authentic story of the redeeming power of the Christmas message is illustrated in the incredible life of an English slaver named John Newton, born 300 years ago into a seafaring family in England. His mother was a godly woman who died when John was 7, and he recalled as the sweetest remembrance of childhood the soft and tender voice of his mother at prayer.
His father married again, and John at 11 went to sea with him. He eagerly adopted the vulgar life of seamen as he grew older, though the memory of his mother's faith remained. "I saw the necessity of religion as a means of escaping hell," he recalled many years later, "but I loved sin."
On shore leave, he was seized by a press gang and taken aboard HMS Harwich. Life grew coarser. He ran away, was captured, put in chains, stripped before the mast, and flogged. "The Lord had by all appearances given me up to judicial hardness," he recalled. "I was capable of anything. I had not the least fear of God, nor the least sensibility of conscience. I was firmly persuaded that after death, I should merely cease to be."
The captain of the Harwich traded him to the skipper of a slaving ship, bound for West Africa to take aboard wretched human cargo. "At this period of my life," he later reflected, "I was big with mischief and, like one afflicted with a pestilence, was capable of spreading a taint wherever I went." John's new captain took a liking to him, however, and took him to his home on an island off the African coast, where his wife, a beautiful and cruel African princess, waited for him. She soon grew jealous of her husband's friendship with John. John fell ill, and when the captain sailed he left John in his wife's care.
The ship was barely over the horizon when he was thrown into a pigsty. The jealous wife blinded him, and left him in delirium to die. He did not die, but was kept in chains and fed swill from her table. Word spread through the district that a black woman was keeping a white slave, and many came to taunt him. They threw stones at him, mocking his misery. He would have starved if captured slaves, waiting for a ship to take them to the Americas, had not shared their meager scraps of food.
When the captain returned five years later, John told how he had been treated. His old friend scoffed, and called him a liar and a thief, but agreed to take him home to England. John was treated ever more harshly on the voyage, fed only the entrails of animals butchered for the crew's mess. "The voyage quite broke my constitution," he recalled, "and the effects would always remain with me as a needful memento of the service of wages and sin."
Like Job, he became a magnet for adversity. When his ship crashed in a storm he despaired that God's mercy remained after a life of hostile indifference to the Gospel. "During the time I was engaged in the slave trade," he said, "I never had the least scruple to its lawfulness." Yet the wanton sinner, the arrogant blasphemer, the mocker of the faith was at last driven to his knees: "My prayer was like the cry of ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear."
Miraculously, he was rescued, and made his way home to England to reflect on the mercies God had shown him in his awful life. He fell under the preaching of George Whitefield and the influence of John Wesley, and was born again into the new life in Christ. Two days short of Christmas 1807, he died at the age of 82, and left a dazzling testimony to the miracle of Christmas. "I commit my soul to my gracious God and Savior, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer and an infidel, and delivered me from Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me." He set down the story of his life, and it became the most beloved hymn of Christendom.
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.
(This column was requested from an earlier Christmas.)
c Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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