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National Legal Summit
Created Equal: Reflections on the Unalienable Right to Life

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Give Me More of That "Amazing Grace"

By Thomas A. Glessner, J.D.
February 26, 2007

It appears that sometimes Hollywood really does get it. The release of the movie "Amazing Grace" this last weekend exemplifies this.

"Amazing Grace" chronicles the story of William Wilberforce, the member of the English Parliament who labored close to fifty years to achieve the abolition of slavery in the English empire. The movie also touches on the relationship between Wilberforce and John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship who, after his conversion to Christianity, authored the famous hymn "Amazing Grace".

Wilberforce relentlessly fought the battle for the dignity of human life and freedom for black slaves. His tenacity on behalf of the cause of freedom in the face of great opposition makes him a hero to those who today are fighting in defense of the dignity of human life. His story is particularly inspiring to those who have fought long years against abortion and the dehumanization of the unborn who, like the African born slaves of years past, have been denied the right to life and legal protection of constitutional personhood.

The movie deals primarily with the struggles of Wilberforce, who initially questioned whether he could be totally devoted to God and at the same time devote himself to the political war to abolish slavery. He concludes that, indeed, his devotion to Christ requires him to be committed to ending the ugly moral blight that slavery cast over the English empire.

The movie touches on Wilberforce's relationship with Newton, but gives little detail on the life of Newton and what events transpired to bring about his dramatic change of heart and the writing of the beloved hymn. An understanding of the influence of John Newton on Wilberforce is crucial if we are to fully understand that it is only through God's amazing grace that individuals can achieve societal changes, which have eternal implications.

Facets of Newton's life are exemplary of the power of God's amazing grace to change men's lives. John Newton was born over 300 years ago in a seafaring English family. His mother died when he was seven and he left school at age eleven to join his father at sea. He quickly adopted the vulgar life of a seaman and his life grew coarse and harsh. In talking about this time period he stated: "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."

John eventually locked arms with the skipper of a slave ship bound for West Africa. His captain befriended John and took him to his plantation where he lived with his wife — a beautiful and cruel African tribal princess. She grew jealous of her husband's friendship with Newton. When her husband went to sea and left John at the plantation due to an illness she seized her opportunity. Her husband's ship was barely over the horizon when she apprehended John and threw him into a pigsty. She temporarily blinded him and left him in a delirious state to die.

Newton was kept in chains in a cage like an animal and did not die. When world spread through the country that a black woman was keeping a white slave many came to observe and taunt him. They threw stones at him and mocked him in his misery. He would have starved to death except for black slaves, waiting for a ship to take them to America, who shared their meager scraps of food with him.

After five years Newton's captain friend returned but called him a liar when John told him how he had been treated. When they set sail Newton was treated more harshly and allowed to eat only the entrails of animals butchered for the crew's mess. During this time he was involved in the slave trade. Of this he said: "I never had the least scruple to its lawfulness."

As Newton became more entrenched in the slave trade he became a decadent blasphemer and mocker of faith. He eventually became the captain of his own slave ship transporting thousands of black slaves to the plantations where they were exploited, tortured and even killed for economic gain. Thousands of these humans never completed the initial voyage as they died in wretched conditions on the slave ship that were unfit for animals.

On one voyage Newton's ship crashed upon shoreline rocks. Newton was despondent and cried out to the God whom he had ignored his entire life. He was amazed that God's mercy remained on him after a life of hostile indifference to the Gospel. He said of this: "My prayer was like the cry of ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear."

Newton was miraculously rescued and went back to England to reflect upon the mercies of God in his life. He fell under the influence of Methodist preacher George Whitefield, a compatriot of John Wesley, and entered into a new life with Christ as his captain and the slave trade as his regretted past.

In the movie John Newton talks of his slave trading days to his friend Wilberforce with intense contrition and brokenness noting that he had 20,000 ghosts haunting him, an obvious reference to 20,000 slaves he had tortured in his ships over the years. Physically blind at this time he references to Wilberforce the words he had penned in his hymn, "Was blind but now I see" and acknowledges that he was experiencing the truth of those precious words.

Newton died two days short of Christmas 1807 at the age of 82 and left a spectacular testimony to the miracle of God's amazing grace. On his deathbed he proclaimed:

"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."

Newton's life impacted the life of William Wilberforce who, in turn, impacted the entire world by his devotion to the claims of Christ. The true message of the lives of both Newton and Wilberforce tells us that none of us, as fallen individuals, have the capacity to impact the world for eternal good, but each of us can make an eternal impact when we experience God's true amazing grace offered free to all who will accept it.

As in Wilberforce's time we live in a society today where life is cheapened and degraded. Sensuality and pleasure cost millions but don't bring happiness while the value of human life is at an all time low. One out of every three pregnancies is aborted today for convenience and the death toll of the unborn killed continues to mount at a rate of 1.2 million a year. Where are the William Wilberforces of our time to speak out?

Individuals across our nation today need to experience that Amazing Grace that transformed the lives of Wilberforce and Newton. This is a grace undeserved but offered freely to those who will accept it. While it is free it is not cheap. It does not allow one to live a life of callous indifference to the plight of others. Rather, when experienced it transforms and empowers us to live our lives as change agents for the eternal kingdom that is coming and which will end once and for all the oppression and killing of the innocents across the globe.

Yes, we all need a dose of that amazing grace which changed the lives of William Wilberforce and John Newton. These two men changed the world because they experienced this amazing grace in their lives. May we all experience this grace everyday in our own lives so we can also change our nation and world.

Give me more of that Amazing Grace!

Copyright © 2007 by Thomas A. Glessner. All rights reserved.

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