The world is in a mess, and Christians know it. Too many of us believe that we have not been called to change the world. What if centuries ago Christians had taken a similar position? What would the world be like today? John Newton (1725-1807) was an infamous slave trader. The church knows him best as the author of such well-known hymns as “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” Even while Newton was a Christian, he was also a captain of a slave ship. “Newton penned the beloved hymn ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear’ during the leisure time afforded by a voyage from Africa to the West Indies.”1 Keep in mind the often repeated claim that Christians are not called to change the world. Following this line of logic, Newton could have remained a slave trader and a good Christian.
In time, however, Newton confessed “shame” for “the misery and mischief to which [he had], formerly, been [an] accessory.” He eventually denounced his former occupation with the publication of Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade (1788), “a stinging attack upon slavery that makes scenes from Alex Haley’s Roots seem mild by comparison.”2 Newton believed, prior to his denunciation of the slave trade, that he could be a good Christian and do nothing to fix social evils. “By 1788 Newton considered it ‘criminal’ to remain silent and not inveigh with evangelical fervor against the entire slave system. This conviction did not arise automatically upon his conversion, but from ethical deliberations that [William] Wilberforce set in motion.”3
England’s abolition movement was almost entirely led by the evangelical wing of the church. At the pleading of Lady Middleton and Bishop Porteus, James Ramsay wrote a long Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784). Ramsay was “convinced that men will not respond to lessons of eternal redemption from those who enslave them on earth, or about heaven when kept in hell. . . . He proposed steps to total Emancipation, and suggested that free labour would yield more profit to plantation owners.”4