Many years ago, prior to conceiving John Adams Academy, I had an epiphany while handing out diplomas at a continuation high school. These are schools where those who have struggled behaviorally and academically are given a new chance at school and life. This senior class was small enough that graduates were given a few moments to share their journeys of challenges and triumphs as part of the commencement.
I love and live for these types of moments because they reflect the real human experience of imperfect life—and the grit and endurance it takes to overcome obstacles. One graduate arose and told her story of teen pregnancy, becoming a young mother, dropping out of school, and ultimately returning to her education to overcome. Her next words took us by surprise: “I want to express my journey in music with this song.”
She then sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace” a cappella.
“Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”
I quietly dabbed the tears from my eyes. I was so proud of her determination, resilience, and courage to find herself, and then to put her emotions on display and accomplishments to words. WOW!
To this day, I never hear the music or lyrics of this hymn without thinking of her or the movie Amazing Grace that followed a few years later. The title of the movie is a reference to the 1772 hymn itself. The film highlighted the experiences of John Newton, who worked on a slave ship. The work dulled his humanity, bruised his spirit, and caused him great sorrow and regret. His conversion to Christianity inspired him to write the later poem and prose of the hymn. Newton eventually became a major influence on William Wilberforce, who was politically seeking the abolition of slavery.
Over the course of a few decades Wilberforce fought public indifference and the moneyed opposition determined to keep their economic interests safe. Nevertheless, Wilberforce finally found the inspiration to persevere in his family and, together with his friend John Newton, he would find and fight with new ideas that would lead to a great victory for the liberation of slaves and hope again for mankind.
DEFINITION: Grace is the favorable influence of God and His Divine influence in renewing our hearts that restrains us from sin. Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828
Did you know that there was an American itinerant preacher named John Woolman who also found the amazing grace to turn the hearts of the early Quaker communities on the east coast from slaveholders to abolitionists? He wrote a personal journal that is the second work after Benjamin Franklin’s in the first volume of The Harvard Classics. His story is also one of “amazing grace.”
He reflects, “Before I was seven years old I began to be acquainted with the operations of Divine love….to seek after that pure habitation which I then believed God had prepared for his servants.” He noted that, “In the bloom of youth no ornament is so lovely as that of virtue, nor any enjoyments equal to those which we partake of in fully resigning ourselves to the Divine will.” Later in life while on a journey with a friend he noted, “The difference in general betwixt a people used to labor moderately for their living, training up their children in frugality and business, and those who live on the labor of slavers, the former, in my view being the most happy life…..men having power too often misapplied it; that though we made slaves of the negroes, and the Turks made slaves of the Christians, I believed that liberty was the natural right of all men equally.” Woolman, J. (1794). A Journal of the life, Gospel Labours, and Christian experiences of that faithful minister of Jesus Christ. Printed by R.M. Jackson.
His reasoning and reflective questions were to ask the congregants at various hamlets and cities what slavery was “doing to their souls?” John was well-educated and as such he was frequently asked to use his gifts for others.
On one such occasion Woolman was asked to be the scribe of a will for a successful neighbor. “About this time an ancient man of good esteem in the neighborhood came to my house to get his will written. He had young negroes, and I asked him privately how he purposed to dispose of them. He told me; I then said, I cannot write thy will without breaking my own peace and respectfully gave my reasons for it. He signified that he had choice that I should have written it, but as I could not, consistently with my conscience, he did not desire it, and so be got it written by some other person. A few years after, there being great alterations in his family, he came again to get me to write his will. His negroes were yet young, and his son, to whom he intended to give them , was, since he first spoke to me, from a libertine become a sober young man, and he supposed that I would have been free on that account to write it. We had much friendly talk on the subject, and then deferred it. A few days after he came again and directed their freedom, and I then wrote his will.”
John Woolman’s subsequent actions and labors led him to become an itinerant preacher, visiting many Quaker communities up and down the east coast. This ultimately led to a complete abolition of slavery among Quakers before 1776. The power to change ourselves, our family, our community, and the world lies within each of us. It is frequently manifest in the deceptively simple acts of how we conduct our lives.
As he neared the end of his life, he requested a friend record his emotions and feelings for him. “O Lord my God! the amazing horrors of darkness were gathered around me and covered me all over, and I saw not way to go forth; I felt the misery of my fellow-creatures separated from the Divine harmony, and I was heavier than I could bear, and I was crushed down under it; I lifted up my hand and stretched out my arm, but there was not to help me; I looked round about and was amazed. In the depth of misery, O Lord! I remembered that thou art omnipotent, that I had called thee Father, and I felt that I loved thee, and I was made quiet in thy will, and I waited for deliverance from thee; thou hadst pity upon me when to man could help me; I saw that meekness under suffering was showed to us in the most affecting example of thy Son, and though taught me to follow him, and I said, Thy will, o Father, be done.”
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
Amazing Grace invites us all in music, word, and deed.