by Charles Gardner
It is my contention that wherever the gospel is faithfully preached and honoured, support for Israel will never be far behind. This was surely the case in respect of the globally-loved hymn Amazing Grace, first sung in rural Buckinghamshire, England, 250 years ago to mark the new year of 1773. It was written by former slave ship captain John Newton, curate (assistant priest) for the parish of Olney, as testimony to his own, undeserving, salvation in Christ, and begins:
how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see
It has since been echoed throughout the world as the testimony of millions. But how is it connected with Israel?
Photo by Adam Jones / Wikimedia Commons (cc)
Saved from shipwreck in a furious storm at sea after praying for mercy, Newton duly became a key witness in the long campaign for the abolition of slavery led by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce also experienced a powerful conversion to Christ and was considering a pulpit ministry when Newton persuaded him to stay in politics where he was to become hugely influential in the major issues of the day – including the place of Israel in the world.
As it happens, it was shortly after the passing of the Abolition Bill, and Newton’s death, that Wilberforce became co-founder of the London Jews Society (later the Church Ministry among Jewish people) in 1809. He thus helped to play his part, in a hugely significant way, in the restoration of the Jews, both physically to their ancient land and spiritually to recognition of their Messiah in Jesus. As with other great evangelical Christians of the 19th century – men like Charles Spurgeon, Charles Simeon and J C Ryle – he was persuaded of the significance of Old Testament end-time prophecies concerning the return of Jews to the Holy Land and their subsequent spiritual re-birth.
The hymn was also featured – and indeed was the title – of the 2007 film on Wilberforce marking the bi-centenary of his successful campaign starring Ioan Gruffudd, with Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt and Albert Finney as John Newton.
During his 16 years at Olney (he was later rector of London’s St Mary Woolnoth), Newton and his friend and fellow poet William Cowper wrote a new hymn each week for the church prayer meeting.
Another popular Newton hymn – and my personal favourite – is How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds. The last two verses are especially apt for everyone who has known a complete transformation of the kind Newton experienced:
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.
Indeed, it was said that on his deathbed he uttered these immortal words: “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Saviour.”
I too wanted to step up to the pulpit following my conversion 50 years ago. But God had other ideas, believing I could influence more people through my pen. And so I have the awesome privilege of sharing this amazing story with you. Praise the Lord, for he knows best!
Charles Gardner is the editor of CMJ UK Prayer Focus and was on the editorial board of ProphecyToday.uk for seven years.