- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The malls and the Main Streets have fallen silent. The ringing cash registers, the happy cries of children, the greetings of a thousand fraudulent Santas are now but ghostly echoes across the silent streets.

But the Christ born in a manger 2,000 years ago lives, liberating the hearts of sinners and transforming the lives of the wicked. The authentic story of the redeeming power of the Christmas message is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the incredible life of an English slaver named John Newton.

John Newton was born 300 years ago into a seafaring family in England. 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 soon married again, and John left school at 11 to go to sea with him. He quickly 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 seized by a press gang and taken aboard another ship, HMS Harwich. Life grew coarser. He ran away, was captured 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. 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 plantation on an island off the African coast, where he had taken as his wife a beautiful and cruel African princess. She grew jealous of her husband’s friendship with John, and was pleased when it was time for them to sail once more. But John fell ill, and the captain left him in his wife’s care.

The ship was barely over the horizon when she had him thrown into a pig sty, with a board for a bed and a log for a pillow. He was blinded, and left in delirium to die. Miraculously, he did not die. He was 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 watch her taunt him. They threw limes and 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.

Five years passed, and when the captain returned John told how he had been treated. His benefactor branded him a thief and a liar. They sailed again and John was treated even more harshly. He ate 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 became a magnet for adversity. When his ship wrecked 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.”

Once 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 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 amazing 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 that state on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me.” His testimony, set to music, would become the favorite 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.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,

I have already come;

‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

Reprinted from an earlier Christmas

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