The malls and the Main Streets fall silent. The ringing cash registers and the happy cries of children ring like ghostly echoes across 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.
Newton was born nearly 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 rough seamen, 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 another ship, and 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 captain of the HMS Harwich traded him to the skipper of a slaving ship, bound for West Africa to take aboard 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 liked 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 John and was glad when it was time for them to sail.
But John fell ill, and the captain left him in his wife’s care. The ship was barely over the horizon when she threw him into a pig sty, with a board for a bed and a log for a pillow, 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 passage to the Americas had not shared meager scraps of food.
Five years passed, and when the captain returned, John told how he had been treated. He was called a liar and branded a thief. When they sailed, John 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 became 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 was driven at last 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 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.
On this day in 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, became the favorite hymn of all 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.
(Reprinted from an earlier Christmas)
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.