The strip malls and the Main Streets will once more fall silent. The ringing cash registers and the happy cries of children will be but ghostly echoes across silent streets. But the Christ child born in a manger 2,000 years ago lives, liberating the hearts of sinners and transforming the lives of the wicked.
He was born 300 years ago into a seafaring family in Liverpool. His mother was a godly woman whose faith gave her life meaning. She 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 left school at 11 to go to sea with him. He adopted the vulgar life of seafaring men, though the memory of his mother’s faith remained. He reckoned that religious faith was important, he recalled many years later, “but I loved sin.” On shore leave, he was seized by a press gang for another ship, HMS Harwich, where life grew coarser. He ran away, was captured, put in chains, stripped before the mast and flogged mercilessly. “The Lord had by all appearances given me up to judicial hardness. 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 Harwich traded him to a slaving ship, bound for West Africa to take aboard human cargo. “At this period of my life,” John 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 liked him, and took him to his home on an island off the African coast, where he had married a cruel African princess. She grew jealous of John. He fell ill, and he was left in the woman’s care. HMS Harwich was barely over the horizon when she threw him into a pig sty, blinded him, and left him in delirium to die. He did not die, but he was kept in chains in a cage and fed swill. Word spread through the district that a black woman was keeping a white slave, and many came to taunt him. They threw limes and stones at him, mocking his misery. He would have starved if slaves waiting passage to the Americas had not shared meager scraps of food.
Five years passed, and the captain returned. John told how he had been treated. He was denounced as a liar. When he was finally taken aboard HMS Harwich again, he was treated ever more harshly, allowed to eat only the entrails of animals butchered for the crew’s mess. “The voyage quite broke my constitution,” he would recall, “and the effects would always remain with me as a needful memento of the service of wages and sin.”
Like Job, he was a magnet for adversity. His ship crashed onto the rocks, and he despaired that God’s mercy remained after his 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.”
The wanton sinner, the arrogant blasphemer, the mocker of the faith of others was 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 he arrived back in England to reflect on the mercies God had shown him despite his awful life. He fell under the preaching of George Whitefield and the influence of John Wesley, and he was at last born again into the new life in Christ.
Shortly before Christmas Day of 1807, he died at the age of 82, leaving a dazzling testimony to the miracle born on 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 that state on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me.”
His testimony, set to music, would become 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,View Entire Story
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