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Amazing Grace: The Historical Record

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Most everyone has heard of the popular hymn, Amazing Grace, but how many know the story behind it?

John Newton

John Newton

 

Its author was John Newton, a former British slave trader, turned evangelical Christian, after being enslaved himself for a time. Newton's spiritual awakening was so powerful and profound, he eventually became a priest in the Church of England and one of England's leading voices for the abolition of slavery.  Newton, however, was not a politically powerful man.  Newton's dream of the abolition of the slave trade and the institution of slavery as a practice would have never been realized without a providential and serendipitous event.  That event came when he met a man named William Wilberforce.

Isaac Milner

Isaac Milner

 

William Wilberforce was born into a well to do British merchant family.  Wilberforce became a member of Parliament at the age of 21.  Several years later, he toured Italy and France with a friend, Isaac Milner, and grew deeply spiritual.  So great was the crisis of spirit in Wilberforce, he considered leaving Parliament for the priesthood.  But first, he wrote John Newton and asked for a secret, private meeting.  That meeting would change the history of the world.

After they met, on Sunday, October 27th, 1787, Wilberforce wrote the following:

"God Almighty has placed before me two great objects:  the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners".

 

In late 18th century England, the term "manners" referred to public morality.  Wilberforce had set two goals for himself that seemed impossible to complete:  ending the trading of slaves and altering the morality of all of British society.  

Wilberforce was undeterred.  Every year, beginning in 1787, he introduced a bill to the British Parliament, proposing an end to the practice of the slave trade.  And every year, his bill went down to a crushing defeat.  Wilberforce's health began to suffer, but he was undaunted.  He was on a mission from God.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

 

Then, fully twenty years after he began his struggle, on February 23, 1807, after years of his persistent pursuit, Wilberforce was able to build a consensus in Parliament and the slave trade in the British Empire was ended.  The resolution was read aloud as follows in a very consequential and dramatic moment in world history:

"This house conceiving the African slave trade to be contrary to the principles of Justice, humanity and sound policy, will with all practicable expedition proceed to take effectual measures for abolishing the said trade."  

Upon the completion of the reading, the entire British Parliament erupted in tumultuous applause and cheering for William Wilberforce, who sat in his seat, tears streaming down his face, having fulfilled one of the central missions of his life.  As his tears flowed, the cheering grew more raucous and loud.  Such a demonstration in the ordinarily stately British Parliament was unprecedented.  

It was a remarkable achievement to abolish the slave trade.  But having abolished the slave trade, Wilberforce's work was not done.  For, while the trading of slaves was now banned, the institution of slavery still remained.  Although the die was cast, it would not be until 1833, another twenty-six years later, that the British Parliament would abolish slavery itself as an institution throughout the entire British Empire.  William Wilberforce, then ailing and close to death, got word of the abolition and died just three days later, his life's work accomplished.  Accomplished without bloodshed and accomplished through his tireless efforts at reform of British society.

British historians have noted how, in one instance, a group of West Indian slaves all gathered on a hill the night before the abolition of the foul institution of slavery.  These people gathered on that hill top for one reason:  to see the sun rise on the first day of their freedom.  What can one say of the human spirit that exemplifies the desire in all men for individual liberty ad sovereignty better than those slaves gathered on that West Indian hill top on that night in 1834?

Indeed, it can be said without fear of contradiction that were it not for people of faith leading the abolition movement in America and also in England, slavery would NEVER have been abolished.

The great abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass said upon the death of William Wilberforce:

"It was the faithful, persistent and enduring enthusiasm of William Wilberforce and his noble co-workers that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave and move the strong arm of government in mercy to put an end to his bondage.  Let no American, especially no colored American, be without a generous recognition of this stupendous achievement.  Though it was not American, but British, it was a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil and a victory for the whole human race."

The slave trade was outlawed in the United States that very same year it was outlawed in England, 1807.  An act of Congress was signed into law by President Thomas Jefferson.  Often overlooked in the United States Constitution is the following passage, Article 1, Section 9:

The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.

In other words, the government could not ban the importation of slaves for 20 years after the adoption of the Constitution.  As soon as the twenty years was up, they did indeed ban it.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that the Framers of the US Constitution, some of whom were slave holders themselves, found slavery none too odious a practice, but this is untrue and revisionist history.  Just as today, there are people who disdain the practice of abortion, but oppose its abolition in law, favoring instead other approaches to reduce the practice, so too, there were men of like mind among the Founders and Framers with regard to slavery.  Our forefathers knew slavery was anathema to the principles upon which they founded a new country, America.  But they knew well enough to place the seeds of destruction of that vile practice into the Constitution itself.  Refer back to Article 1, Section 9.

 

Often omitted from the telling of history are the sentiments of our Founders on the issue of Slavery.  Some of which are shared here:

“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”

- George Washington, letter to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786

 

“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States. … I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in … abhorrence.”

- John Adams, letter to Robert Evans, June 8, 1819

 

“It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”

- John Jay, letter to R. Lushington, March 15, 1786

 

“I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil.”

- Patrick Henry, letter to Robert Pleasants, Jan. 18, 1773

 

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

- Thomas Jefferson, “Autobiography,” 1821

 

“[The Convention] thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”

- James Madison, Records of the Constitutional Convention, Aug. 25, 1787

 

“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”- James Madison, speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787

 

“It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!”

- James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 42

 

“American citizens are instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity and in defiance of those of their own country. The same just and benevolent motives which produced interdiction in force against this criminal conduct will doubtless be felt by Congress in devising further means of suppressing the evil.”

- James Madison, State of the Union, 1810

 

It is both shocking and appalling when prominent members of the media adopt a wholly pretentious and presumptuous attitude about the sentiments of our Founders with regard to Slavery as both a trade and an institution.  The opposition to Slavery did not begin with the Lincoln Administration.  It culminated  in it.  And if one reads the Gettysburg Address in that light, it draws all the more meaning because the journey to rid America of Slavery was a long, arduous  and bloody one, but it began in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. 

 

Amazing Grace  by John Newton (b. 1725 d. 1807)

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

  

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.

And Grace, my fears relieved.

How precious did that Grace appear

The hour I first believed.

 

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

and Grace will lead me home.

 

The Lord has promised good to me.

His word my hope secures.

He will my shield and portion be,

As long as life endures.

 

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,

And mortal life shall cease,

I shall possess within the veil,

A life of joy and peace.

 

When we've been here ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun.

We've no less days to sing God's praise

Than when we've first begun.

 

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

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Comments

Feb 18, 2015 5:24pm
janewinstead
My favorite hymn is "Amazing Grace" along with the new version of "Amazing Grace" by Chris Tomlin.
Feb 18, 2015 5:24pm
janewinstead
P.S. I forgot to tell you how well-written this article is.,
Feb 19, 2015 6:32am
ajc55ny
Thank you, Jane!
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