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Fierce Convictions and Amazing Grace

Fierce Convictions and Amazing Grace

In 1780, during the height of her high-society years in London, [Hannah] More read a book that changed her life. Cardiphonia, sometimes translated by publishers as The Utterance of the Heart or Voice of the Heart, was a collection of letters penned by John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” As was common, Newton’s book was published pseudonymously. More was curious to know whom the author of this marvelous and moving book was.

Although little known today, Cardiphonia is a classic of Christian literature. The volume of personal letters by Newton put forth his convictions concerning human depravity and the sufficiency of Christ to redeem fallen humanity. The book’s theme of this vital religion is seen in a passage from the first letter of the collection.

The awakened soul (especially when, after a season of distress and terror, it begins to taste that the Lord is gracious) finds itself as in a new world, he wrote.

Who could attest to such doctrines better than this wretch saved by that sweet and amazing grace?

Newton spent the first part of his life following in the footsteps of his father in the seafaring business. Yet even more than the sea, the slave trade defined Newton’s early adult life, from being a slave himself to trafficking in human flesh. When he was about twenty, Newton was impressed into naval service. Impressment was a kind of involuntary servitude that was legal in Great Britain, a practice long justified as necessary for a robust national defense well into the nineteenth century. Newton attempted to desert the ship but succeeded only in being flogged, demoted, and transferred to a slave ship that took him to Sierra Leone. There he was handed over to a slave trader and made the slave of an African princess, who abused and mistreated him along with the rest of her slaves. Eventually rescued by another slave trader, he nearly lost his life aboard the Greyhound during a horrific storm that almost downed the ship in 1748. Newton cried out to God, his life was spared, and through this he “began to know that there is a God, who hears and answers prayer.”

Despite his newfound faith, Newton did not immediately recognize the evil of slavery. He continued to work in the slave trade. In fact, it was after his conversion to Christ that Newton became captain of a slave ship. Some of the most detailed records of the horror chambers sailing the Middle Passage are found in Newton’s journals. Extracts from his journal detailing a 1754 voyage described the fatal illnesses, suicide attempts, insurrections, and ghastly punishments that characterized the journeys of slaves being transported to the colonies.

Newton withdrew from the horrid business only gradually; his failing health was a greater cause for this, at first, than his developing convictions. As his faith matured, he decided to pursue the priesthood within the Church of England. Only when he was no longer immersed in the business could he truly see the slave trade for the evil it was. Newton was ordained in 1764, appointed priest in the parish of Olney, and became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London in 1780.

Over the several years that followed her reading of Cardiphonia, More became increasingly disenchanted with the trappings of high society and turned more fully toward the Christian faith she had assumed all her life but not embraced with full intention. She couldn’t stop recommending Newton’s book to friends. “There is in it,” she later wrote to her sister, “much of the experience of a good Christian, who feels and laments his own imperfections and weaknesses.” In 1787, More trekked to Newton’s church, St. Mary Woolnoth, to meet the man.

With Newton as pastor, St. Mary Woolnoth had become one of only a few churches in London sympathetic to evangelical ideas. More visited there on a Tuesday to hear Newton preach. The two talked together after church for about an hour. When she returned home, her “pockets were stuffed full of sermons.”

More’s meeting with Newton marked one more significant stone on her path toward an increasingly evangelical—and personal—faith. It was Newton—his writings, his sermons, and his friendship—who convinced More to devote her life to promoting spiritual education and reformation across British society. With Newton, in the words of his well-known hymn, More could say, I once “was blind, but now I see.”

As a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn’t know what water is, so a person living in eighteenth-century Great Britain—immersed in an economic and social structure built on the slave trade—could not easily, if at all, see slavery for what it was. To do so required, it seemed, a certain kind of perceptiveness of mind and spirit. Hannah More was one of the few who possessed it.

The slave trade seemed so necessary to the material well-being of the nation that even those who could imagine a world without slavery could hardly envision how it might cease. After all, human slavery, in one form or another, had existed for most of human history. In Britain, the slave trade grew most dramatically during the reign of King Charles II, who had been restored to the throne in 1660. Not only were British commerce and prosperity seen as dependent on the slave trade, but so, too, was the kingdom’s military prowess. As an island nation, England relied on the health of the navy for its defense. Britain owned more than half of the world’s slave ships. The slave trade provided valuable training ground for naval forces. Abolition of the slave trade would “annihilate” an industry that put sailors and ships to work in addition to generating wealth from imports and exports, a 1791 declaration to the House of Commons asserted. A statute was therefore issued declaring that the slave trade was “very advantageous to the nation.” One member of the House of Commons admitted that the slave trade was not “an amiable trade, but neither was the trade of a butcher, and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing.” To be sure, when it finally came, the abolition of the slave trade required of the empire what has been called “econocide.” The direct cost of emancipation was twenty million pounds, the amount given as compensation to the masters whose slaves were freed according to the Emancipation Bill of 1833. Additional indirect costs included the higher prices paid for goods brought from the West Indies.

Support for the slave trade was couched in more than economic terms, however. Some supporters of the slave trade shrewdly appropriated the appeals by the abolitionists for basic humanity and argued in return that the slaves were better off in the colonies than in their native continent. In 1791, to an abolitionist’s appeal for mercy, one earl retorted, “Humanity is a private feeling, and not a public principle to act upon.”

Even so, the opposition to slavery began nearly as soon as the slave trade began to thrive in England. Christians were among the leading voices in that fight. The Quaker George Fox proclaimed against the institution of the slave trade in 1671, followed by the Puritan Richard Baxter in 1680. A century later, Granville Sharp, the Anglican son of an archbishop of York, spearheaded efforts to outlaw the slave trade in England. In the middle of the eighteenth century, More’s friend Samuel Johnson proclaimed in his Idler essay 87, “Of black men the numbers are too great who are now repining under English cruelty.” He hated the hypocrisy of American colonists who were chiming for political independence while keeping African slaves in chains: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” In 1774, John Wesley proclaimed of slavery, “I deny that villainy is ever necessary,” and the Methodist Conference decreed the freeing of slaves in the organization’s mission outposts in 1780. Even so, Wesley never expected the slave trade to be abolished by law and appealed instead to individual conscience.

This period was dubbed the age of reason. In light of growing changes and developments, the slave trade appeared less and less defensible in a worldview increasingly based on rationalism and empiricism. Furthermore, an economic class between peasant and aristocrat was growing, filling in the gap between high and low. Competing interests—economic, judicial, social, and political— brought new complexities to an issue that had once been determined simply by might and money. Travel, literacy, and communication were making the horrors of human slavery more widely known.

If there is one name usually associated with the abolition of the British slave trade, it is William Wilberforce, the member of Parliament who spearheaded the legal effort against slavery and became one of Hannah More’s dearest friends.

In 1780, the young man from Hull won his first parliamentary seat at the age of twenty-one. In 1784, William Wilberforce went on to win the representation of one of England’s most prestigious seats, the county of Yorkshire. Wilberforce was small in stature and, even more than Hannah, delicate in health. He was gifted with eloquence in speech and a beautiful singing voice for which he was widely known. The description of Wilberforce’s eloquence given by James Boswell is famous: “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but, as I listened, he grew and grew until the shrimp became a whale.”

Wilberforce’s journey of faith was, like Newton’s, one of fits and starts. After the death of his father when Wilberforce was a boy, he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle whose strong Christian faith and solid teaching greatly influenced him. But as many young men find, young adulthood, university, and independence had a way of turning religious commitment sour. Following his 1784 campaign victory, Wilberforce went on holiday with a friend who was a tutor at Cambridge and a devout Christian. As they journeyed, the two talked of genuine religion. At some point, they picked up a copy of Philip Doddridge’s classic work The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Doddridge was a Dissenting minister and hymnist of the early eighteenth century whose informed and intellectual approach to genuine personal faith influenced many for ages to come. Wilberforce was one of them. Before taking that holiday, Wilberforce had all but abandoned the Christian faith of his upbringing. After returning home—having held countless spiritual conversations with his former tutor and having read Doddridge’s book—he labored under months of spiritual conviction as he struggled to alleviate his guilt over his youthful excesses and the abandonment of the faith with which he had been raised.

Finally, in 1785, the year after Samuel Johnson’s death, and the same year that More moved to her country retreat at Cowslip Green, a downtrodden Wilberforce sought out Newton at St. Mary Woolnoth. His journal entries showed he had agonized for days before sending a note to Newton requesting a secret meeting. He knew his fame as a parliamentarian would make him all too recognizable, and a meeting with a serious and devout evangelical Christian like Newton would bring controversy. Besides, Wilberforce was still wavering about entering into a true faith commitment. Wilberforce paced about the square outside the church before going in. At last the legendary meeting took place. The old slave trader’s counsel to the young politician yielded a crucial swerve in history.

Wilberforce mistakenly thought that religious commitment and worldly affairs could not go well together. He thought that being a sincere Christian required withdrawing from the corrupt corners of human business. Had he gone elsewhere for guidance, had he fallen, for example, under the sway of John Wesley, one nineteenth-century biographer speculated, Wilberforce likely would have followed his inclination to retreat from public life in favor of a course devoted to private piety. But he sought the counsel of Newton. Newton exhorted him to “stay at his post, and neither give up work, nor throw away wealth; wait and watch occasions, sure that He, who put him at his post, would find him work to do.”

Newton convinced Wilberforce that he need not relinquish his place in government in order to serve God but could do so right where he was if only he set his mind on a worthy goal. From this advice came the course of life that Wilberforce set before himself.

On April 14, 1786, Good Friday, Wilberforce attended church and took Communion for the first time. Neither the church nor England would be the same.

Watch the Fierce Convictions Video

Excerpted with permission from Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life Of Hannah More – —Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior, copyright Thomas Nelson.

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