Friday, April 23, 2010

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Joanathan Aitken. PT 1

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Joanathan Aitken.
When I die, Courtney and Megan are going to sing Judy Collins arrangement of Amazing Grace at the funeral. I will be close by and listening. Hopefully, it won’t take too long for St. Peter to decide if the gate is open. While he flips the coin, I will wait and listen one last time to my favorite hymn. John Newton wrote it and I have been fascinated by his story for several years. His greatest accomplishment had nothing to do with hymns rather the abolishment of the slave trade and his church ministry. In poetic irony, Newton’s claim to fame as an abolitionist was his prior history as a cruel slave trader. This book was long but extremely interesting. So much was firsthand accounts, letters and selections of journal entries. It opened a small window into actual, not fictional, life of the 1700s.The book was fairly well written and had an overtly churchy flavor. If I had a criticism, it would be as follows. I felt the author was a little too much of a fan and believer in Newtons “sainthood” . (Quotes because Anglicans cannot be saints.) It was as if after Newtons conversion, he could do no wrong. All is forgiven and forgotten.
Newton was born in England in1725 and died 82 years later in 1807. Newton’s mother‘s “educational and spiritual Legacy to her son was greater than either of them realized during her lifetime. She had brought him up to believe in God’s omnipotence, to fear his judgment, and to accept that his word, as recorded in the Bible, was the source of all truth. In his adolescence and early manhood John Newton often rebelled against these teachings. Yet the spiritual lessons the boy had learned at his mother’s knee were never forgotten. They became the Foundation for Newton’s eventual conversion and Christian commitment .in addition to her spiritual instruction of her only son, Elizabeth also in calculated the good habits of industry and intellectual curiosity, as well as the enjoyment of expressing oneself in a wide ranging vocabulary.“ Pretty amazing, what a good mother can do.
Newton, like Crusoe, was drawn to the sea and at a young age. His father was a Captain of some reputation and this saved Newtons life on at least 2 occasions. Friends of his father intervened frequently to help Newton out of near death situations. Newtons first sailing voyage was at age 11 with his father to Spain and the Mediterranean. Newton believed he was had been repeatedly saved by divine providence and interventions; Saved to do some great work. The first time was at age 15 when he missed the longboat, which was to take him to a ship. The longboat overturned and everyone drowned while Newton watched from the quay. “Missing the boat” and watching everyone drown happened several times during Newtons time at sea. Apparently, at that time, NONE OF THE SAILORS LEARNED TO SWIM. If you went in the water, you drowned! Plus, PFDs were not invented yet.
At the age of 19, a press gang found him walking the streets and suddenly he was in the navy. He was taken to the HMS Harwich and found fit to serve. Newton was supposed to sail to the far east, a FIVE YEAR trip before any hope of return to England and discharge. The Royal Navy was extremely dangerous. Climbing up the rigging, pulling on the sheets and lines, furling and unfurling the sails in all weather all the while, learning to cope with the smoke and recoil of the guns was part of the training. This was called “learning the ropes”. He was in love, could not conscience leaving Polly, his future wife, for 5 years, and promptly deserted. Captured again, he was beaten, not hanged, as was the custom probably because of his father’s influence. He was however “traded to a Slave trading ship” for one of their crew members. This was the beginning of Newtons slaving years. He was an amoral and successful slaver by his own admission but like Joseph and Potifers wife, he managed to anger the wife of his boss. She made him a slave himself and for over a year was chained to a small cage eating the leftovers given him by the other slaves on the Sierra Leone plantation. A friend of his father eventually saved him. On the return trip, their boat was severely damaged by a storm and was sinking. When it looked like all was lost and he would surely drown, he had a “deathbed conversion” and began to pray. Miraculously, the boat was saved, Newton believed once again by divine intervention. Although he was converted, he needed money and so continued in the slave trade although he says with more compassion. He openly admits he was guilty of committing all the known vices but tried hard to repent. Even after conversion, he had difficulty controlling one of his major moral failings. He had an uncontrollable desire for the female slaves. As captain of the slaving ship, apparently it was his privilege to have his way with the female slaves as he saw fit. He saw fit quite often by his own admission.
Polly finally agreed to marry him and he quit the sea. At age 29, he had been shipwrecked, a slaver, a slave himself, a blasphemer and debaucher and now was a converted Christian. He felt he was called to the ministry. He also joined the Freemasons but quit after a short time. He was influenced heavily by John Wesley and George Whitefield the founders of the Methodist Church. This actually made it more difficult for him to be appointed a preacher in the Church of England. He also was friends with William Cowper a famous poet and together they wrote a famous “best selling” hymnbook.
Part 2 later.
NOTE: Italics are quotes from the book. No page numbers as it was electronic.

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