Most of the words that come out of my mouth are meant to annoy others. When I hear yet another rendition of John Newton’s Amazing Grace on the radio or at a church gathering, my cynical response is generally, “Yeah, I know, 21st C Americans couldn’t begin to write poetry as well as 18th C Brits, so why bother?” But that isn’t it, is it? That’s not why this legendary song is so popular, despite that I really, really desire to annoy people. Our ineptness to pen powerful words in corresponding lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter is not the point.
The point is what the song represents. It’s no secret that I’m passionate about the Enlightenment, specifically the British Enlightenment. But what seems to have been lost to many of my fellow countrymen is that the values that inspired the American revolution sprang from British Enlightenment thinking. These values are not necessarily Christian in nature. However, consider for a moment some of these values: reason as a method to reform society and disseminate knowledge, the acceptance of intellectual debate, and the focus on the individual. All of these values fit neatly into the Christian ones of propagating the gospel, reforming problems and injustice in society, and bringing individuals to Christ. Furthermore, Enlightenment values inspired the necessary debates that ended slavery and began the feminist movement, because, according to the value system, all people are equal, not simply regarding the justice system, but in God’s eyes as well. God sent his son to save black and white, male and female, slave and free.
When politically minded Christians such as William Wilberforce fought to end slavery, he used Enlightenment values to do so–values not elucidated by philosophers, but by Jesus Christ, himself. For those in the dark, Jesus called his people to a higher standard than the law. Jesus wanted the hearts of men, and not simply the willingness to follow a set of regulations. Oh, didn’t you know? Slavery was regulated in the Old Testament law. It was regulated in order that corrupt men couldn’t take advantage of the system that kept the market system afloat with cheap labor. Slavery was regulated because God hates injustice. And for that reason, men such as William Wilberforce used Enlightenment values to altogether abolish slavery in the justice system.
That intangible freedom of the individual–that is the heart of the poem Amazing Grace. Mankind is corrupt and doesn’t deserve it, but that doesn’t change mankind’s need for it. We need freedom from slavery in so many ways, and when I hear that yet another singer has redone these words to yet another tune, has sung Newton’s words one more time, I realize that all is not lost in this country. The Enlightenment values we began with are not lost to us.
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 snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d 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 possess, within the veil,
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.
John Newton (1725-1807)