|Calvary Episcopal Church, Rockdale
March 4, 2007
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
On the 6th of January of this year, the 223rd Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania resolved
strongly to urge our Bishop and each congregation to commemorate, today, the 200th anniversary
of the signing of legislation abolishing the Slave Trade in the United States on March 2, 1807. On
Thursday he fulfilled his charge by supplying for us a set of Propers for the occasion – the collect
and lessons for the day – replacing the propers for this Second Sunday in Lent.
Ordinarily I would be a bit piqued by an intrusion in the flow of Lent – especially after I’d just
preached a sermon urging us all to follow Lent, carefully, and to live into it.
But, in fact, if we have to depart from normal practice, I can’t imagine many topics that would be
more worthwhile or, in it’s way, more fitting of what Lent is all about; that is: self examination, the
realization and admission of sin, confession and repentance of sin, and atonement for sin. And
the event of this day, that we are commemorating, was for our nation part of a similar, but
collective process – a small and unsure step, indeed, but a step it was.
I met, yesterday, with our organist, Bob, to discuss what changes in our planned music might be
appropriate, and we came up with two; two hymns we thought would fit the occasion.
The hymn we just sang was the first – a long-time favorite of mine: In Christ there is no east or
west. The song must be popular, because when I tried, yesterday, to get some information about
its origin, I quickly found the authorship attributed to four people: two individuals and one pair! It
must be pretty good with so many people trying to claim credit for it!
More importantly, though, for our purposes this morning, is the description of the music, in our
hymnal, as from an old Afro-American spiritual – which is fitting. And the words, themselves! What
can we say about them?
Well, they are certainly premature, at best. One could describe them as Utopian, at least – of
maybe Pollyannaish. But I prefer to think of them as hopeful and visionary. The words “in Christ
there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love, throughout
the whole wide earth,” are nothing if not hopeful of a world coming truly to know Jesus Christ, as
well as a vision of what Christ’s Church is supposed to be, now!
Actually, though, I’m more interested today in the other song we settled on, which comes from a
time when only a very, very small minority, even of Christians, was just beginning to envision the
Church and world described in that first hymn!
About this other song – the one we’ll sing as our Communion hymn – there is no doubt as to
authorship! It was written by an Englishman named John Newton, who was born in 1725 and died
John did bad things – some very bad things – but he was not a bad man. What he was was a man
of his time, who thought and did as nearly everyone did.
His father was a sailing man who, when John’s mother died when John was only 11, took his son
to sea with him. 7 years later his father sent him off to Jamaica to a job he had arranged on a
plantation, but the boy never made it. Instead, he was taken while traveling, and pressed into the
Royal Navy. A life of adventure and mishap began, then, with desertion, recovery, and being
traded to a merchant ship for food – a ship that was involved in the slave trade! In six months
time, he found himself in Africa seeking his fortune – first in Guinea; then in Sierra Leone – but
finding, instead, a life of poverty and servitude that amounted to slavery. He would later describe
himself, during the period as, “an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa.” Eventually
he was rescued by a friend of his fathers, and taken to England and it was on the way home that
he was to have an experience that would set his life on a new track – eventually! On May 8, 1748,
he awoke to find himself in a raging storm, with the ship taking on water – and, as so often
happens in crises like that, he prayed – prayed hard, asking Jesus to save him. The ship finally
made it to port, and John became a Christian, with a vengeance – giving up profanity, gambling
and drinking, and spending his spare time reading and studying and praying!
And in the meantime ferrying slaves from Africa to the New World!
For 6 years after his conversion experience he continued a slaver, but in 1754, while in England,
he began attending religious meetings. There he heard people involved in the English
evangelical revival; people like George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers! He gave up the
seafaring life – and slaving – and in 1757 made his first application to become a priest of the
Church of England. Not very warmly received, at first, it took him seven years of trying, but in 1764
he was ordained a priest! The rest of life he spent in parish work – first as Curate of Olney, and
then, from 1779 until his death in 1807, as Rector of St. Mary’s, Woolnoth, in London.
By all accounts he was a good and faithful pastor, but, as I said, he was a man of his time, and it
was not until 30 years after that fateful storm brought him to faith, that he came to oppose slavery!
But he spent his last 30 years well, as an abolitionist, working against slavery, even becoming
mentor to William Wilberforce, who, more than anyone else, was responsible for England’s
outlawing of slavery in 1833!
In fact you can see John portrayed by Albert Finney in a film about William Wilberforce that was
released just this week.
But we needn’t wait to see the film to experience one accomplishment of John Wilberforce. We
will do that as we sing his hymn at Communion time – his hymn that gives this new film its name:
Amazing Grace. A hymn sung in the first person – a person who, like John Newton, was lost in
confusion and pointlessness, and blind to the realities of life and the world – who at last is found
by the God who seeks us all, even when we’re trying to avoid or evade – or ignore – him! A great
hymn, about real life – Christian life.
But today I’m more interested in the life of the man who wrote the song than in the song, itself,
because it speaks to us both about Christian life and about the subject of today’s special
We hear so often about people who have religious experiences, whose lives are completely
changed from that moment on. St Augustine and St Francis Assisi come quickly to mind. And I
certainly wouldn’t question their stories – they stand on their own.
But John Newton’s story is a much more common one – a much more relatable story. The story of
a man who sees the reality of his life in a moment of time, yes, but a man who then struggles for
the rest of his life to become – to grow into – the person that moment showed him he could be;
the person God called him to be, not only in that moment, but throughout his life. A man who
found that the moment of revelation, a moment that he celebrated as an anniversary for the rest
of his life, was just the very beginning of the battle – a mere glimpse of the prize to be won! And
in the struggle, he lived a great life!
And the story of his life and his struggle also serves us, today, I think, as a kind of parable – a
parable of the much larger struggle that John Newton eventually became such an important part
of, in his own country! It’s a parable that’s set off by the coincidence of the year of his death, and
the date of the event we honor, today: the year 2007 – two hundred years ago.
And we can see his life as a kind of parable, as well, that points out that there is no moment in
time when the goal is reached, the mission accomplished, but only landmarks along the way!
What happened on March 2, 1807 represented a great step forward, a great accomplishment – a
step taken that same year by The British Empire, as well.
But more was to come. The British beat us to the next step - largely through the efforts of John
Newton and William Wilberforce – in outlawing slavery, completely, throughout the Empire, in 1833
– 32 years before we managed to do it, and then only after one of the most horrendous wars in
history to accomplish!
And the struggle isn’t done, today! Just as John Newton found out in his life, the struggle goes on
and on and on – with always another step, ahead.
1807 didn’t end the battle. 1865 didn’t end the battle. The voting rites act of 1965 didn’t end it. The
election in 1990 – just 17 years ago – of Doug Wilder, to be the first African-American Governor in
our history, a man who had two grandparents who were born into slavery! – didn’t end it.
17 years, 140 years, or 200 years do not wipe out the legacy of an institution that began with the
first purchase of African Slaves in the Jamestown Colony in 1619 – after all, there were slaves in
the land for 246 years, and it’s only 142 years since emancipation – and only 42 years since the
voting rights act of 1965 finally made the grandchildren of those slaves full citizens of this nation.
Growth is a process – John Newton demonstrates that. But he also demonstrates that growth is a
struggle! And growth toward becoming a world that has at last put away the last vestiges of
chains and inequality and bigotry is one of the great struggles that has faced the human race
from the beginning of time. And this date, the lessons we’ve heard, the life of John Newton, the
example of Jesus Christ, all challenge us to recognize the struggle, to take up the struggle, and
someday, to win it.
In Jesus Christ’s name!