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    Did you know?...Amazing Grace and the story of abolitionists Newton and Wilberforce

    Did you know?...Amazing Grace and the story of abolitionists Newton and Wilberforce

    Photo By Laurie Pearson | William Wilberforce read more read more



    Story by Laurie Pearson 

    Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow

    When you hear the iconic song, Amazing Grace, what do you think of ? Church choirs? Funerals? Perhaps bagpipes belting out the haunting tune? Did you know that the author of Amazing Grace was once a slave ship master who saw the light, reformed his ways and became one of the most influential people in history for the abolition of slave trade? His influence, particularly on William Wilberforce, helped to push the British Parliament to abolish slavery in 1807.

    John Newton was born in London, England in 1725. His father was a sea-captain and his mother a Puritan who died shortly after his death. At age 11, Newton began going to sea with his father, and eventually served in the British Navy. He was, at one point, a slave himself, sold by a slave trader to African royalty. Eventually, he became a slave ship master, working with slave traders to transport people, treating them as cargo.

    It was during a storm in 1748, when Newton thought his ship full of slaves may sink, that he prayed to God for deliverance. While this was the beginning of his desire to embrace Christianity, it was later, on another slave ship that he became deeply ill and prayed again for God’s intervention. This experience is what he touted as the moment when he began to realize the horror of his trade, and he began to change. In 1764, he became a priest. He grew to deeply regret his involvement in the slave trade and began speaking against the trade. In collaborating with William Wilberforce, he was able to reach the depths of Parliament and high society.

    Born in 1759, William Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy merchant. He was well educated at Cambridge University where he became friends with the future prime minister, William Pitt.

    Wilberforce was a slightly built man, only five foot three inches tall, was born in Hull, or Kingston upon Hull, is a port city in East Yorkshire, England. He often suffered from poor health, as well. However, between his Christian faith, and his duties as a member of Parliament for Hull, he became a powerful force and the voice of the abolition movement in Parliament. He was elected to Parliament at the age of 21. Although he wished to leave politics in order to go into ministry, Newton convinced Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was.” Wilberforce took his advice and “spent the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery.”

    In 1787, he was called upon by Thomas Clarkson, with a copy of his “Essay on Slavery,” at which point the men met and began to collaborate, as well. The essay was entitled, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. In it, Clarkson wrote of slavery:

    “...A crime, founded on the dreadful pre-eminence in wickedness, a crime, which being both of individuals and the nation, must sometime draw down upon us the heaviest judgment of Almighty God, who made of one blood all the sons of men, and who gave to all equally a natural right to liberty; and who, ruling all the kingdoms of earth with equal providential justice, cannot suffer such deliberate, such monstrous iniquity, to pass long unpunished.”

    Clarkson further explained that slavery “is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”

    With these influential men by his side, Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of slave trade for 18 years. His fight to end the trade of British ships carrying black slaves from Africa to the “West Indies” or “Americas” where they were bought and sold, was a bitter one, wrought with strife. He ensured that others saw the horrific conditions in which slaves were held, against their will, aboard ships. In his autobiography, Newton described the conditions as such:

    “They lie... in two rows one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close that the shelf would not easily contain one more. And I have known a white man sent down among the men to lay them in rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible be lost... and every morning perhaps more instances than one are found of the living and the dead... fastened together.”

    In another excerpt, Newton wrote:

    “Sometimes the weather keeps them below deck for a week and they have to breathe hot and corrupted air. Diseases often break out and I believe nearly half of the slaves on board have sometimes died.”

    With these tales of the horrors and indignities pressed upon unfortunate human beings, Wilberforce began networking with members of the Clapham religious sect, and other abolitionists, to raise awareness of the atrocities rendered in slave trade. They hosted rallies, passed out books and flyers and finally revealing one of the largest petitions in British history.

    In one heated speech at the House of Commons, Wilberforce challenged those present, saying:

    “As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, so enormous so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might, let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition... I felt a confidence in this principle, and took the resolution to act upon it: soon, indeed, the light broke in upon me...Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.”

    Newton, in the meantime, began collaborating with poet William Cowper to produce a volume of hymns, including 'Amazing Grace.' His preaching, including sermons touching on the abolition of slave trade, was so popular that the church could often not accommodate all those who wished to attend.

    Their efforts were, in part, successful in 1807 when slave trade was officially abolished by the British Parliament and House of Commons. Newton, severely ill and nearly completely blind, was “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news.” However, this success was only in stopping the practice of initiating new slave trading. It did not free slaves already transported and sold. That happened in 1833 when an act was finally passed which gave freedom to all British Empire slaves.

    The House of Commons passed the act on July 29, 1833. Shortly thereafter, Wilberforce died and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

    Upon next listening to the song, recall the context in which it was written and contemplate the state of the world at the time. Written without music, hymns of that time were intended to be chanted.

    In a pamphlet Newton wrote in 1788 called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” he wrote this of his regret:

    “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.”



    Date Taken: 02.08.2018
    Date Posted: 02.12.2018 16:22
    Story ID: 265744

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