Several years ago I was very sick with blood sugar problems, and since it was not diabetes it took months before the condition was diagnosed correctly. By the time it was diagnosed I was bedridden, needing help to get to the bathroom, and fainting frequently. I had also lost 30 lbs from my usual weight, to the point where the clothes I’m wearing would hang as if on a hanger. I was so weak that I despaired of ever being able to return to a normal life.
In a word, I was desperate.
In the depths of my desperation I tried to hang on to any positive thought, and for some reason the words of the hymn Amazing Grace (which I posted yesterday), particularly,
The Lord has promised good to me.
His Word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
kept returning to my mind, like those pesky songs that get in your head and play over and over.
I do not know how I recalled those words since I’m not particularly religious, don’t remember hymns or lyrics and most of the time I don’t even understand the words being sung, but I held on to those words as a means to my regaining my health.
And, thank God, I was able to find the way to get better. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by far, which was complicated by the fact that I had a completely inept doctor and was given bad medical advise by him and other members of his staff.
It took me nearly five years before I could carry a normal schedule.
A few years later, one Sunday in church the rector held his annual sing-along service, where he’d ask people to request their favorite hymn. I asked for Amazing Grace, of course, and before we sang, he told the story of the song.
I don’t cry often, but I cried when I heard it. I had no idea it was connected to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, which the British accomplished in the nineteenth century. March, 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the slave trade’s abolition in Britain.
While I still frequently sing the hymn (quietly to myself, since I sing like a frog), I totally forgot the story behind it until I saw the trailers for the movie a couple of weeks ago.
This morning I was taking care of personal matters when I read an email from Caitlin Bozell,
I would like to let you know that, today, the epic story of abiding faith and uncommon courage, Amazing Grace, comes out in theaters everywhere. It tells the story of William Wilberforce and a community of abolitionists as they awaken the conscience of a nation by taking on the most powerful interests of their day to end the British slave trade. It is the true story of a reluctant leader called to do the impossible in order to allow truth and justice to prevail
Many inspiring global crusades have been launched in order to finish the work that Wilberforce started over 200 years ago. Behind the film Amazing Grace is a movement against modern-day slavery called The Amazing Change campaign, created to make freedom a reality the estimated 27 million slaves in the sex and labor industries today.
The Amazing Change website has information on present-day slavery, among them the fact that there are more slaves in the world today than during all 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Maria sent me the NYT review.
I’ll try to see the movie today or tomorrow.
Update: Peggy Noonan writes about how Wilbeforce was driven by Christianity, and the hymn itself (emphasis added):
It is thus fitting that John Wesley happened to write his last letter–sent in February 1791, days before his death–to William Wilberforce. Wesley urged Wilberforce to devote himself unstintingly to his antislavery campaign, a “glorious enterprise” that opposed “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” Wesley also urged him to “go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
Wesley had begun preaching against slavery 20 years before and in 1774 published an abolitionist tract, “Thoughts on Slavery.” Wilberforce came into contact with the burgeoning antislavery movement in 1787, when he met Thomas Clarkson, an evangelical Anglican who had devoted his life to the abolitionist cause. Two years later, Wilberforce gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament.
As for the hymn “Amazing Grace,” from which the film takes its name, it is the work of a friend of Wilberforce’s named John Newton (played in the movie by Albert Finney). Newton had spent a dissolute youth as a seaman and eventually became a slave-ship captain. In his 20s he underwent a kind of spiritual crisis, reading the Bible and Thomas a Kempis’s “Imitation of Christ.” A decade later, having heard Wesley preach, he fell in with England’s evangelical movement and left sea-faring and slave-trading behind. Years later, under the influence of Wilberforce’s admonitions, he joined the antislavery campaign. The famous hymn amounted to an autobiography of his conversion: “Amazing grace . . . that saved a wretch like me.” In the most moving moment of the film–and one of the few that addresses a Christian theme directly–the aged and now-blind Newton declares to Wilberforce: “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”
This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in “For the Glory of God” (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor. When chattel slavery, long absent from Europe, reappeared in imperial form in the 16th and 17th centuries–mostly in response to the need for cheap labor in the New World–the first calls to end the practice came from pious Christians, notably the Quakers. Evangelicals, not least Methodists, quickly joined the cause, and a movement was born.
Thanks to Wilberforce, the movement’s most visible champion, Britain ended slavery well before America, but the abolitionist cause in America, too, was driven by Christian churches more than is often acknowledged.
Go read it.
Update, Saturday 23 February How Faith Moved a Nation
Abolition was, strictly speaking, impractical. According to Adam Hochschild’s history of abolition, “Bury the Chains,” Britain was a country “where profits from West Indian plantations gave a large boost to the economy, where customs duties on slave-grown sugar were an important source of government revenue, and where … the trade itself had increased to almost unparalleled levels, bringing prosperity to key ports, including London itself.”
How to overcome all this? The abolitionists called on the British people to live up to their professed faith. If they believed that all men were created in the image of God, how could they sanction treating some of them as chattel? They pushed the public’s nose down into the facts of what happened on the slave ships, countering the propaganda about slaves enjoying their journey. They mobilized public opinion in an unprecedented way, producing petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people.