This column is reprinted at Christmastime at the request of many readers.
The malls and the Main Streets will soon fall silent. The ringing cash registers, the happy cries of children, the hearty greetings of a thousand fraudulent Santas will soon be ghostly echoes in shuttered shops and across silent streets.
But the Christ born in a manger 2,000 years ago yet lives. The story of Christmas continues to quicken the hearts of sinners and transform the lives of the wicked, and nothing illustrates the redeeming power of the authentic message of Christmas with greater clarity than the story of a wastrel English slaver named John Newton.
Newton was born 300 years ago into a seafaring family in England. His mother was a godly woman whose faith gave her life meaning, and he recalled as the sweetest remembrance of childhood the soft and tender voice of his mother at prayer. She died when John was 7.
His father soon married again, and John left school four years later to go to sea with him. He easily adopted the vulgar life of common seamen, though the memory of his mother’s faith remained. “I saw the necessity of religion as a means of escaping hell,” he would recall many years later, “but I loved sin.”
On shore leave, he was kidnaped by a press gang and taken aboard HMS Harwich. Life grew coarser. He ran away, was captured and taken back to the Harwich and 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.”
The captain of the Harwich traded him to the skipper of a slaving ship, bound for West Africa to take aboard wretched 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 favored him, however, and invited him to his island plantation off the African coast, where he had taken as his wife a beautiful but cruel African princess. She grew jealous of John, and was pleased when it was time for them to sail. But John fell ill and was left in the care of the captain’s wife.
The ship was hardly over the horizon when she ordered him from her house and thrown into a pigsty. She gave him a board for a bed and a log for a pillow. He was left in delirium to die. Miraculously, he did not die. He was blinded, kept in chains in a cage like an animal, 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 limes and stones at him, mocking his misery. He would have starved if other slaves, waiting for a ship to take them to the Americas, had not shared their meager scraps of food. Five years passed, and the captain returned. When John told him how he had been treated, he branded John a thief and a liar. When they sailed again, John was treated ever more harshly.
“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 became a magnet for adversity. He was shipwrecked in a storm, and despaired that God had mercy left for him after his life of hostile indifference to the Gospel. “During the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple to its lawfulness.” Yet the wanton sinner, the arrogant blasphemer, the mocker of the faith of others, was finally driven to his knees: “My prayer was like the cry of ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear.”
Rescued, he made his way back to England, to reflect on the mercies God had shown him in his awful life. He fell under the influence of George Whitefield and John Wesley, and was wondrously born again into a new life in Jesus Christ. He spent the rest of his life preaching of God’s mercies.
Two days short of Christmas 1807, he died at the age of 82, and left a dazzling testimony to the amazing grace of the Christmas story. “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.” Set to music, his testimony 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.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
and grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come.
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
and grace will lead me home.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times