I have absolutely no intention on commenting upon the recent debate about protester’s demands to pull down the statues of prominent historical figures. Indeed, as someone who has never received abuse or been denied opportunity because of my race or the colour of my skin, I would rather leave the decision to others.
However, as I watched the news this morning, I did wonder about the stained glass portrait of John Newton in the church of St Peter and Paul in Olney, Buckinghamshire.
Newton was a seaman. He first went to sea with his father, but was later press-ganged into serving with the Royal Navy. After an eventful few years, Newton got involved in the East African slave-trade, eventually becoming a ship’s captain. In 1788, 34 years after he had retired from the slave trade, Newton wrote a forceful pamphlet called Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships. He apologised for “a confession, which … comes too late”, claiming, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton had copies sent to every Member of Parliament [i] and later became associated with William Wilberforce and the Abolitionist Movement.
A couple of years ago, some good friends of ours played on the Bunkfest main stage, performing to thousands of people. They sang John Newton’s well-known hymn, Amazing Grace. Rather than watch the band, I turned round and scanned the crowd. I was staggered that even now, in our post-Christian age, virtually everyone made an effort to sing-along. Praise God that in our divided and confused society there is still hope. Make no mistake, true change will involve a lot of listening, real repentance and a huge amount of forgiveness. However, my prayer is that in the coming days, many thousands of people will discover God’s amazing grace, which even now is able to save a ‘wretch like me’.
If you want a listen to Newton’s wonderful song, this is a brilliant rendition, performed by a multi-racial choir and aired on the BBC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maeSHVZX8xc
Yours and His, Gareth
[i] Hochschild, Adam (2005), Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan