On business trips, he would spend several hours praying and reading the Bible each morning, with another round of prayers at midday. As a ship captain, he enjoyed long spells of solitude on deck, keeping a diary and recording that he knew no “calling that… affords greater advantages to an awakened mind, for promoting the life of God in the soul.” His expensive cargo required extra officers and crew, reducing his onboard responsibilities. “I never knew sweeter or more frequent hours of divine communion, than in my last two voyages to Guinea, when I was either almost secluded from society on shipboard, or when on shore… I have wandered through the woods reflecting on the singular goodness of the Lord to me.”
John Newton recorded those words while transporting African slaves and having his savings invested in the slave ship business.1 For more than thirty years after he left the slave trade, during which time Newton preached thousands of sermons, published half a dozen books, and wrote Amazing Grace and 279 other hymns, he “seems never to have heard God say a word to him against slavery.”2
Like Billy Joel, I think Newton was an innocent man. A saying among management experts today goes like this: “Your system is perfectly designed to yield the result you are getting.”3 Newton was the product of a system that “was focused on changing not the social order of his world but its spiritual life.” He “was falling more and more under the influence of the Evangelical movement.”4
As a result, Newton assumed God wanted to save souls more than reorder society. George Whitefield, the most influential Evangelical minister of his day – Newton heard him preach – owned more than fifty Georgia slaves and believed firmly that “hot countries cannot be cultivated without Negroes.” Whitefield and Newton had their eyes wide shut.
Opening eyes often begins in the unlikeliest of places. In 1785 Dr. Peter Peckard became vice-chancellor of Cambridge University. He had repeatedly condemned the slave trade as a “most barbarous and cruel traffick.” So he put to use his office and “set as a topic for Cambridge’s most prestigious Latin essay contest the question Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare? – Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?”5
The winning entrant was penned by a twenty-five-year-old Cambridge student named Thomas Clarkson who entered only to win the prize. But as he marshaled the evidence, Clarkson was overwhelmed with horror. “I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief,” he later wrote. Upon collecting his prize, Clarkson set off for London, only to have his eyes opened: “…it was time for some person to see these calamites to their end.” Clarkson enlisted the help of William Wilberforce and others in a four-decade fight to abolish the English Slave Trade. From the late 1700s, the “patient saints of Clapham” pried open eyes, including John Newton’s.
Newton now published a forceful pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. He begins by apologizing for a “confession, which…comes too late…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.”6
Twenty years from now, will the next generation accuse us of having our eyes wide shut? Approximately 10 million African slaves arrived in New World slave markets between 1510 and 1868 (when Cuba was the last to abolish its slave trade). Did you know there are today an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide? Modern day slavery can come in many different forms. A U.S. Government report published in 2003 estimates that 800,000-900,000 people worldwide are trafficked across borders each year. Millions of women are abducted as sex slaves, populating such events as the Olympics. Children are routinely abducted. Entire families are made to work long days in rice-mills, brick kilns or on plantations.
In February of 1807, the first in a series of bills designed to abolish the English Slave Trade was passed by Parliament. The two-hundredth anniversary of this landmark legislation will be marked on February 23, 2007 when the motion picture Amazing Grace is released in theaters nationwide. The story of Clarkson, Wilberforce, and Newton will open many eyes. Walden Media, the filmmaker, is campaigning to abolish modern day slavery by motivating people and organizations to make a mark on history and speak out against this evil. I urge you to visit http://www.amazinggracemovie.com and get behind this important project.
1 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p.77
2 Ibid, p.2
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), p.58
4 Ibid, p.72
5 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p.87
6 Ibid, p.130