Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina
The year was 1748. John Newton, 23 years old, was returning to England from Africa on a ship named Greyhound. A feisty sailor with no interest in the Christian faith (in fact, he often derided and mocked those who believed in God and was notorious in his use of foul language), Newton had been in Sierra Leone for several years as punishment for his bad behavior as a crew member on a slave-trading ship. Now he was returning home.
As the ship sailed into the North Atlantic, a violent storm almost destroyed the Greyhound and everyone on it. Panic ensued, and there was a good deal of loud cursing. But in the midst of the howling winds, Newton was astonished to hear himself not cursing, but rather crying out to God for mercy. The ship did survive the storm, and while it was being repaired in an Irish port, John Newton, who claimed the date of that storm, March 10, 1748, as the date of his conversion, wrote the first verse of the hymn we now know as “Amazing Grace.”
Newton later looked back on this conversion experience as only a “partial” conversion, however. He cleaned up much of his life, but he saw no problem with the slave trade of his day, and soon after his conversion, he returned to the sea to captain three different slave-trading ships! It wasn’t until 1754, following a severe stroke, that he gave up sailing and slave trading. Some 34 years later, Newton would publish a pamphlet vehemently denouncing the slave trade. In it he said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” By this time, Newton had been ordained a priest in the Anglican church.
I find myself thinking today that it is possible, just possible, that some of the ancestors of the nine Christians who gathered on June 17 to study and pray together at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, may well have been part of the “cargo” on the ships captained by John Newton. But on June 17 those 9 people had not gathered to bemoan the injustices of their past history. They had gathered, rather, to experience and celebrate the amazing grace that had led them and their ancestors “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” They had gathered to give thanks and to search for ways of making God’s grace more visible in the places where they lived and worked. And they had gathered in order to share that grace with any others who might join them in seeking to experience God more fully in their lives. When Dylann Storm Roof knocked on the door of the Emanuel African Methodist Church, he was welcomed. And in the hour before the shooting began, Dylann was given a taste of God’s amazing grace.
He would experience more of that grace a few days later at the time of his arraignment, as loved ones of those he allegedly killed sat in the courtroom. Not to express their frustration and anger at another white-on-black killing. Rather, to say three simple words of grace, amazing grace: “We forgive you.”
Much of the nation watched our President at the funeral of the Rev. Pinckney on June 26. Amazing grace was the theme of his oration. Amazing grace that had sustained and nurtured the nine victims throughout their lives. Amazing grace that we, as a nation, needed to experience. Amazing grace to open our blind eyes, to find us in our lostness, to lead us to address the pressing issues of racial injustice, of gun violence, of poverty and inequality in our land.
No bagpipes played the beloved hymn. Instead, our President himself solemnly sang the familiar words and led the nation to experience, individually and collectively, something of what John Newton had experienced in his life. To experience something of what the nine victims of the massacre had experienced in their lives. To experience something of what the loved ones who forgave the alleged shooter had experienced as they sat in that courtroom. To experience something of the sweet, sweet grace of God. Amazing. And so freely given.
Amazing grace!—how sweet the sound—
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
In grateful memory of the lives of:
the Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Ethel Lee Lance
the Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons