The True Story Behind Amazing Grace

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Connecting the Dots
by Glynn Wilson

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William Wilberforce, the British politician and philanthropist who is credited with ending the slave trade in Great Britain, spent his entire adult life dedicated to “creating a better world,” according to his biographies and the movie Amazing Grace. So his story is important to know for anyone with similar ambitions.

Wilberforce was inspired in part by the preacher of his youth, John Newton, who had been the captain of a merchant slave ship until he underwent a dramatic religious conversion while steering his vessel through a violent storm on the way from Africa to Jamaica. Because of his experiences, it was Newton who wrote one of the most beloved Christian hymns of all time, Amazing Grace.

Growing up in a devout Baptist home on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, I’ve heard many renditions of this song over the years. Even though I long ago abandoned the life of “faith” for a life in pursuit of scientific and literary truth, there are times when I have been moved upon hearing the inspiring melody.

I remember hearing my grandfather on my father’s side of the family sing it with the twang of a country accent as he led the choir at the Greensport Baptist Church in St. Clair, Alabama, near Asheville, with my part Cherokee grandmother playing it on an old pump organ. I can still hear in my head the way it sounded as this good man, who fought in World War I and was exposed to mustard gas, whistled the tune as he puttered around his small farm or his wood shop.

medallion

A medallion created as part of the anti-slavery campaign by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795

It was my own father’s favorite hymn, and while he only dabbled at playing the piano, that’s the one song he knew well enough to play all the way through. He would sing it too, although way down on the bass end of the registry where it’s not so pretty.

But never in all my years of hearing that song, until I saw the movie last night, did I know its history and true meaning. I have no doubt my relatives from the racist city of Birmingham have no idea what the song means when they sing it still in the white churches of the South. I wonder if the black congregations even know.

It is a song of repentance for Newton’s regrets at the misery he had inflicted on the thousands of human cargo dragged in chains across the sea to work themselves to death in the sugar cane fields and processing operations for nothing, so that British lords and ladies could enjoy refined sugar in their afternoon cups of tea.

The fact that they sing it still, not knowing its meaning, is one of those great ironies of a life born of ignorance, where little children are still led to believe they are better than someone else because of the color of their skin.

Over the past few months, and again over the past couple of days, I have been assaulted with hate-filled e-mail messages from a white man who claims to be a Christian. He just can’t stand the idea that America just elected its first African-American president. A few days before the election, after I had endorsed the candidacy of Barack Obama again, he told me that my “liberal journalist” ass would “get the first bullet” if McCain-Palin didn’t win.

Three weeks before the election, this so-called “gentleman” and “Christian” who has a wedding chapel on his property not far from here, amassed a large list of e-mail addresses and began sending out conservative propaganda thinking he could help stop Obama’s election. It was all the usual suspects, the lie that Obama is a Muslim and associates with “terrorists,” blah, blah, blah, even though even the candidate he supported repudiated the false rumors in public on TV, even on Fox News.

But this “gentleman” didn’t know how to hide his recipient list, so I grabbed it and cleaned the bad addresses out of it and sent a message back to the list with my links, hoping to bring some solid information to at least some of the readers to counter the lies. It pretty much worked, getting this man screamed at by a select portion of the list members, with a number of them demanding to be taken off the list. I figured it was just one more conservative propaganda list destroyed. I’ve done the same thing to five or six others since moving back to Alabama four years ago. I call it blog-jacking and it usually gets me a few regular readers, in addition to destroying the credibility of the original sender.

You see I also have the goal in life to work at creating a better world. I figure if only I could just get some good and true information in front of people, perhaps they will finally listen and change their ways. Most won’t. But now and then, one will.

Wilberforce, a spiritual man, fought for the abolition of slavery for the prime 46 years of his life, from 1787 until the Slavery Abolition Act finally passed the British Parliament in 1833. It would take another 30 years for that change to come to the United States, founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.”

It took another 100 years for “colored people” to get the right to vote in America, and it took another 43 years for a black man to become president.

I can’t force the racists who think they are Christians to read this. But if this man does, perhaps it may dawn on him at some point that his hate for me and what I do, and for our new president, pretty much disqualifies him from a place in heaven — if there is such a place. There is no way in heaven or on earth that Jesus would side with him in this dispute.

If he does bother to read it, perhaps the next time he hears the song Amazing Grace he will have a new appreciation for what it means. And just maybe, somewhere down in the deep recesses of his heart, he will begin to change too.

The Lyrics of the Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace (How sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snare,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has 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.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall profess, within the vail,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

© 2009 – 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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