REPRINTED FROM AN EARLIER CHRISTMAS
The malls and the Main Streets fall silent. The ringing cash registers and the happy cries of children become but ghostly echoes across the silent cities. 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.
The 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.
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 as an old man 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 quickly 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.” Once on shore leave, he was seized by a press gang to work on another ship, HMS Harwich, and life grew coarser. He ran away, was captured, put in chains, stripped before the mast and flogged without mercy. “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 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 beautiful and cruel African princess. She grew jealous of her husband’s friendship with John, who fell ill, and was left in her care. HMS Harwich was barely over the horizon when she threw John into a pig sty, blinded him, and left him in delirium to die. He did not die, but was kept in chains in a cage 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 slaves waiting to embark on the Middle Passage to the Americas had not shared their meager scraps of food.
Five years passed, and the captain returned. John told how he had been treated and he was mocked as a liar. When he was finally taken aboard HMS Harwich again, he was treated ever 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 wages of sin.”
Like Job, he became a magnet for adversity. His ship crashed against 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 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 arrived back in London 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 was 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 the first 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,
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 emeritus of The Washington Times.