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“A Slave-Trader Who Wrote Christian Lyrics” from The Story of Our Hymns

By Ernest Edwin Ryden – Public Domain

The Name above All Names, John Newton, 1779

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
‘Tis Manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary Rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding-place;
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace.

By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled:
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath;
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death.

~

In one of England’s famous old churches there is a tablet marking the last resting-place of one of its rectors, and on the tablet this epitaph:

“John Newton, clerk, once an Infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa,
was, by the rich Mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored,
pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long labored to destroy.”

This inscription, written by Newton himself before his death, tells the strange story of the life of the man who wrote “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds,” and scores of other beautiful hymns.

Newton was born in London, July 24, 1725. His father was a sea captain.His mother, a deeply pious woman, though frail in health, found her greatest joy in teaching her boy Scripture passages and hymns. When he was only four years old he was able to read the Catechism.

The faithful mother often expressed the hope to her son that he might become a minister. However, when the lad was only seven years of age, the mother died, and he was left to shift largely for himself. On his 11th birthday he joined his father at sea, and made five voyages to the Mediterranean. Through the influence of evil companions and the reading of infidel literature, he began to live a godless and abandoned life.

Being pressed into the navy when a war seemed imminent, young Newton deserted. He was captured, however, and flogged at the mast, after which he was degraded.

At this point his life teems with reckless adventures and strange escapes. Falling into the hands of an unscrupulous slave-dealer in Africa, he himself was reduced practically to the abject condition of a slave. In his misery he gave himself up to nameless sins. The memory of his mother, however, and the religious truths which she had implanted in his soul as a child gave his conscience no peace.

The reading of “The Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas à Kempis, also exerted a profound influence over him, and a terrifying experience in a storm at sea, together with his deliverance from a malignant fever in Africa, served to bring the prodigal as a penitent to the throne of mercy.

After six years as the captain of a slaveship, during which time Newton passed through many severe struggles in trying to find peace with God through the observance of a strict moral life, he met on his last voyage a pious captain who helped to bring him to a truer and deeper faith in Christ.

For nine years at Liverpool he was closely associated with Whitefield and the Wesleys, studying the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek, and occasionally preaching at religious gatherings of the dissenters. In 1764 he was ordained as curate of Olney, where he formed the famous friendship with the poet William Cowper that gave to the world so many beautiful hymns.

It was at Newton’s suggestion that the two undertook to write a hymn-book. The famous collection known as “The Olney Hymns,” was the result of this endeavor. Of the 349 hymns in this book, Cowper is credited with sixty-six, while Newton wrote the remainder. “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds” appeared for the first time in this collection. It is a hymn of surpassing tenderness, and ranks among the finest in the English language.

Other notable hymns, by Newton are: “Come, my soul, thy suit prepare,” “Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat,” “While with ceaseless course the sun,” “One there is above all others,” “For a season called to part,” “Safely through another week,” “On what has now been sown,” “May the grace of Christ our Saviour,” “Though troubles assail us, and dangers affright,” “Day of judgment, day of wonders,” and “Glorious things of thee are spoken.”

Newton’s life came to a close in London in 1807, after he had served for twenty-eight years as rector of St. Mary Woolnoth. Among his converts were numbered Claudius Buchanan, missionary to the East Indies, and Thomas Scott, the Bible commentator. In 1805, when his eyesight began to fail and he could no longer read his text, his friends advised him to cease preaching. His answer was: “What! shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”

When he was nearly eighty years old it was necessary for a helper to stand in the pulpit to help him read his manuscript sermons. One Sunday Newton had twice read the words, “Jesus Christ is precious.” “You have already said that twice,” whispered his helper; “go on.” “John,” said Newton, turning to his assistant in the pulpit, “I said that twice, and I am going to say it again.” Then the rafters rang as the old preacher shouted, “Jesus Christ is precious!”

Newton’s whole life may be said to be summed up in the words of one of his appealing hymns:

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.

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Two Book Reviews: Biographies of Paul and Margaret Brand

The Gift of Pain: Why We Hurt and What We Can Do About It

Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Zondervan, 1997

Paul Brand was a medical missionary in India, and the son of missionaries. He specialized in treating people who suffered from leprosy and is credited with being the first to discover that leprosy did not cause rotting of the flesh, as previous generations has supposed. Brand observed instead that the disease deadened the nerves that brought messages of pain to the brain. Without these messages, his patients repeatedly injured themselves. These injuries became infected and caused the loss if fingers and toes, and often the loss of ability to earn a wage. Brand fought this progression with surgical and practical means—surgically rerouting healthy tendons to replace deadened ones, for example, and sending each patient home with a cat, so rats didn’t chew off numbed digits while the patients slept. He set up a school to teach those with leprous hands how to safely use them to earn a living as a carpenter or plumber, and set up a cobbler’s shop, where customized shoes were made to protect the deformed feet of his patients. Brand spent decades treating patients who could not feel physical pain, and though it sounds odd to our sensibilities, he said, “If I could give any one gift to my patients, it would be the gift of pain.” The Gift of Pain is available through Amazon.com and CBD.com.

If you prefer to watch the Brand’s story on video, here’s a link to a three-part series by Day of Discovery http://www.dod.org/Products/DOD1982.aspx . (It does graphically show the effects of leprosy on the hands and eyes, and may not be suitable for tender-hearted children.)

Vision for God: The Story of Dr. Margaret Brand

by Dr. Margaret Brand and Dr. James Jost, Discovery House, 2006

“We always believed that the Lord who took us in would take us through, adventure by adventure.”-Dr. Margaret Brand

Her baby was just two weeks old when the note came, asking Dr. Margaret Brand to go to work part time, without salary, in the mission hospital where her husband was on staff. The note arrived by messenger and said, “We must have help in the eye department.” It couldn’t have been a worse fit. Margaret had actually missed the ophthalmology rotation in her medical school training and had no experience in the field. She wrote back, “I know nothing about eyes. You’ll have to look for someone else. Sorry.” One hour later there was another knock on the door. The messenger once again handed Margaret a note. “You’ll learn,” it said. “Please start on Monday.”

To say that she learned is an understatement. That first day, the small eye clinic saw nearly 400 patients. Within a few weeks, she had learned to remove cataracts, a major cause of blindness in sun-drenched India. In eye camps held in remote villages, the team might perform 100 surgeries in a day, literally saving the lives of those who could no longer work to support themselves because of their blindness. Over the years, Margaret would also learn much about how the disease of leprosy affects the eye, and became the world’s foremost expert in the field. She pioneered surgical techniques to restore the ability to blink to her patients’ paralyzed eyelids and, still without becoming board certified in ophthalmology, became the Chief of Ophthalmology at the National Hansen’s Disease Center in Carville, LA.

But this biography is much more than a medical journal. Margaret tells us what it was like to raise six energetic youngsters in a foreign and sometimes dangerous country. Someone always seemed to be having an adventure—like the time the pet leopard punctured their daughter’s jugular, the time Margaret locked herself and some friends in a padded cell in an abandoned mental hospital, the time the gibbon grabbed her daughter’s hair and Margaret played tug-of-war with her screaming child, the time marmalade exploded inside all their trunks on a sea voyage, the day they were presented to the Queen and Margaret twisted her ankle when she curtsied, and the many times one or another of the family succumbed to a tropical disease. All this happened as Margaret and her husband Paul homeschooled six children, became world-class authorities on the treatment of leprosy and, most importantly, shined the light of the gospel into the spiritual darkness of India.  Vision for God is available through Amazon.com and CBD.com.

 

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Book Review: A Heart for Freedom

Review: A Heart for Freedom: The remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and her Quest to Free China’s Daughters, by Chai Ling. Tyndale House, 2011

I wish Chai Ling had waited a few more years to tell her story.

In A Heart for Freedom, she recounts the events that led to her involvement in the leadership of the Tiananmen Square student protest in China in 1989. We have a front-row seat as the students and the Chinese government come to a stand-off over personal freedoms, and we vicariously experience the horror of the massacre. Ling evokes our sympathy as she tells us what like to leave her country as a political refugee to start over, a young girl alone and misunderstood.

The final third of the book was the most compelling, as Ling details coming to terms with her helplessness to change the political system in China, her conversion to Christianity and the process of grief and repentance over her four abortions.  We see her understanding progress— first Ling realizes that her abortions ended the lives of real children—that something wrong happened. She grieves over her loss and begins to talk about it. At first she blames China’s one child policy and her ex-husband, but eventually she comes to realize her own role and to understand grace and forgiveness.

On the positive side, it is possible for someone to read this book (and especially the description of grace  on page 320) and learn enough about God to be converted.  Ling’s honest testimony of struggle, of learning about God and the truth about her own sin and helplessness over the period of several months is no simple reciting of a sinner’s prayer – there was real change involved in her life and I have no doubt that she knows God.

But on the negative side, I found that Ling came across as judgmental toward nearly everyone she mentions in the book. Everyone from her father, boyfriends, friends, potential employers to her current husband (whom she seems to love very much) seems not to have “done it right” in their relationship to her. For example, when Ling finally confesses her abortions to a spiritual mentor, she is asked, “Did you confess to God? He will forgive you.” Sound advice, right? Not according to Ling. She left judged by her friend. Over and over she says in her book, “For the Chinese women who will someday come out of their trauma, what they need to hear first is not, ‘Come to God and He will forgive you.’ but, ‘Come to God and He will love you, heal you, and free you.’”  It’s as if Ling cannot stand even the implied criticism by her friend that she needs forgiveness. This is only one of dozens of examples where Ling explains to us her “rightness” sometimes at the cost of condemning the actions and attitudes of others. This is where a little Christian maturity might have tempered some of her judgments and made the book a more edifying read. Her theology is not always perfectly on target, and the book is probably not suitable for young people because of the general (not detailed) descriptions of her sexually immoral teen years.

That being said, I do believe that because of her unique role in China’s history, Chai Ling has a story to tell about grace that no one else could tell.

Review by Susan Verstraete, church secretary at FCC.

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SELINA, THE LESS-THAN-PERFECT SERVANT

By Susan Verstraete

Selina was discouraged. The evangelist John Wesley, her friend, had assured her that it was possible for Christians to attain a state of sinless perfection in this life. Try as she might, the strong-willed and devoted Selina could not accomplish this lofty goal. She felt her failure deeply, and wondered if she could ever be useful in the kingdom of God.

By <span class="fn value"><span lang="en">Unknown</span><a href="https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q4233718" title="wikidata:Q4233718"></a></span> - BBC your pictures <a rel="nofollow" class="external autonumber" href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/selina-hastings-countess-of-huntingdon">[1]</a>, Public Domain, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25144537">Link</a>

(c) National Portrait Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, was converted early in the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. From the beginning, she was determined to use every asset she had in the service of God. She soon found ways to use her position in society to persuade many of the English nobility to listen to the gospel, especially as preached by the evangelist George Whitefield and the brothers John and Charles Wesley, leaders in the early Methodist societies in England.

This was no easy task, as the nobility frowned on the Methodist movement. For example, the Duchess of Buckingham described the movement as “repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors.” While thousands of the common people of England flocked to hear the Wesleys and Whitefield preach in the open air, the Church of England tried to break up their meetings and made it increasingly difficult for Methodist preachers to be ordained. Selina used her influence with the king and others on behalf of the evangelists, going so far as to hire Whitefield as her personal chaplain to insure his ability to continue preaching in England.

Even though many of the nobility disapproved of Selina’s “excesses” in religious matters, others happily enjoyed her company. Selina filled her drawing rooms with musicians, poets, lords and ladies, statesmen, and philosophers for exciting discussions of religion. Often she asked Whitefield or another visiting evangelist to address the group. At the same time she was entertaining nobility in the drawing rooms, her kitchens might be filled with the poor and needy, to whom she dispensed both spiritual advice and material assistance. Selina took every opportunity to talk with her family, friends, and servants about God. Lady Huntingdon was also devoted to her husband and six children. But still, the perfection that John Wesley taught could be hers eluded Selina.

About this time, an older woman who lived on Huntingdon estate began to wonder what might happen to her own soul, should she die suddenly. Selina’s biographer recounts the story:

Speaking gently but firmly, the Countess pointed out the total inadequacy of any good works to save the soul. But that was not the woman’s problem. “It will not do,” she retorted, “I am too bad to be saved.” “Well, now that you are quite lost, you will find Him who came to seek and to save just such as you are,” was Selina’s reply. 1

Without knowing it, Selina had answered both the question of the elderly lady (who was later joyfully converted) and the problem of her own soul. She’d stumbled on the solution—dependence on divine grace. Even though our flesh (the part of our nature that is at enmity with God) was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6), as Martin Luther said, “the old man dies hard.” Remnants of the flesh remain to be battled as long as we live in our present bodies. Someone able to live in a state of sinless perfection might no longer feel his or her need for a Savior. Instead we are compelled to realize our moment-by-moment dependence on the grace of God to save us, to keep us from sin, and to forgive us when we do sin.

Over time, with prayer, and after counsel from Whitefield, Selina did give up the doctrine of Christian perfection, but never stopped using her every asset for the kingdom. Some of her many and varied accomplishments include founding a theological seminary, funding the building of 64 chapels, financing missionaries, and personally paying the debts of dozens of men so that they might be released from debtors prison. The Countess founded a group of churches later called “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion,” some of which still exist today.

Did she do all these things without sinning? No. Selina was described as an autocratic ruler of the churches she founded and failed to set up Biblical church government in them, for one example. Still, at the end of her life, everyone who knew her believed she was a woman of tremendous faith. Thomas Wills, a man harshly treated by Selina, described her this way:

. . . one of the brightest luminaries that had ever shown in the Gospel hemisphere, though like other stars shining with a borrowed or reflected light. . . . Thousands, I say tens of thousands, in various parts of the kingdom have heard the gospel through her instrumentality that in all probability would never have heard it at all; and I believe through eternity will have cause to bless God that she ever existed. She was truly and emphatically a Mother in Israel, and though she was far from perfect in character, yet I hesitate not to say that among the illustrious and noble of the country she has not left her equal. 2

___________________________
1Cook, Faith, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon: Her Pivotal Role in the 18th Century Evangelical Awakening, Banner of Truth Trust 2001, p. 79-80.

2Ibid, p. 422.

 

Susan is the church secretary at FCC.

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John Bunyan: Blessing God for Affliction

“Like the tearing of my flesh from my bones.”

That’s how John Bunyan described parting with his family after their brief visits with him in prison. Each time they walked away, John was reminded of the great difficulty his incarceration imposed on them, especially on his blind daughter, Mary. “What sorrow you are likely to have as your portion in this world!” he wrote. “You must be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand other calamities, even though I cannot so much as bear the wind blowing upon you.”bunyan

Adding to John’s misery was the knowledge that by just saying the word, he could be released. Just one simple statement—”I will not preach the gospel of Jesus Christ”—was all it would take to set him free to support his family again. But John couldn’t do it. “I have determined,” he said, “the almighty God being my help and my shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows, rather than thus to violate my faith.” And so John waited on God for twelve long years in the overcrowded, unsanitary, poorly heated Bedford jail. Here’s something of what he learned there.

“I have often thought that the best of Christians are found in the worst of times.” It was a great mercy that John found himself in a position to both minister and be ministered to in the Bedford jail. Most of the men housed in the Bedford jail at that time were there because of religious persecution. They were free during the day to study Scripture together, to pray and to encourage one another. John found himself in the ironic position of doing in prison what he was imprisoned for doing—preaching and teaching the Gospel—as well as learning from the other imprisoned preachers. Members of his church often came to the jail to comfort John and ask his counsel, and his family was allowed to visit regularly. God ministered His sustaining grace to John through His people.

“Nothing can render affliction so insupportable as the load of sin; would you, therefore, be fitted for afflictions, be sure to get the burden of your sins laid aside, and then what afflictions soever you may meet with will be very easy to you . . .” John learned many spiritual lessons in prison and came to a clear understanding that he needed to entrust his family to God. He meditated on Jeremiah 49:11—”Leave your fatherless children, I will preserve them alive, and let your widows trust in Me.” Later he wrote,

I also considered that if I entrusted all to God, I engaged God to take care of my concerns. But if I forsook His ways, then I would not only falsify my profession, but would also consider that my concerns, if left at God’s feet while I stood true to, and for, His name, were not as secure as they would be if they were under my care, even though I was denying the way of God.

“If thou canst hear and bear the rod of affliction which God shall lay upon thee, remember this lesson-thou art beaten that thou mayest be better.”John Bunyan discovered his voice as a writer while in prison. He began writing as an extension of his ministry to the church and had written four books before his arrest. However, Bunyan’s two major works were written during his stay in the Bedford jail. The first, Grace Abounding, is an autobiographical testimony of his own conversion. The second, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is an allegorical novel that in many ways tells the same story asGrace Abounding, universalizing and personifying Bunyan’s struggles with guilt, doubt, despair and even incarceration.

Could these books have been written without the rod of affliction? George Whitefield didn’t think so. He said, “It [Pilgrim’s Progress] smells of the prison. It was written when the author was confined in the Bedford jail. And ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of Glory rests upon them.”

“In times of affliction, we commonly meet with the sweetest experiences of the love of God . . . . Jesus Christ was never more real and apparent than now. Here I have seen and felt Him indeed!” After being released from prison, John added a chapter to the second edition of Grace Aboundingdescribing some of his experiences there. In the final paragraph, he described the comfort he received from God during a time of doubt in prison. He wrote, “I would not have exchanged this trial for much else; I am comforted every time I think about it and I hope I shall bless God forever for the things I have learned by it.”

Susan Verstraete is the church secretary for Faith Community Church.

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