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Amazing Grace

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February 2011

They could no longer stand the sight, or the smell, or even the thought.  They could no longer stand what they had become.

The road traveled by eighteenth century Anglican pastor John Newton (1725-1807) was neither straight nor smooth.  Newton’s mother provided his early religious training, but she died when he was very young.  Soon afterward his father began to train him for a seaman’s life.  The young Newton fell in and out of trouble, each time resolving to change his life in hopes of avoiding eternal damnation.  When his father retired, he found his teenage son a job as a slave overseer in Jamaica, a job that would hopefully lead to a seat in Parliament.  But being seventeen and hopelessly in love, Newton had other plans.  Furious, his father sent him back to sea.

Newton’s next several years were messy to say the least.  He was forced into naval service.  Life at sea was unbearable, and he was once flogged for trying to escape.  He eventually secured a transfer to the Greyhound, a slave ship running the Atlantic.  In March 1748 the ship, filled with slaves, sailed into a hellacious storm.  Fearful that the end was near, Newton prayed for mercy.  Newton recalled it as the hour he first believed.

But Newton’s faith was not solid, and for the next six years he continued in the slave trade and even commanded slave ships. Yet over time he found himself praying for the slaves.  Near death from a fever, Newton prayed for better faith that he might help unrepentant sinners and for his release from the slave trade and the sea life.  He soon met people who steered him in the right direction, and his faith grew.  By 1764 he had become an Anglican minister.  Newton loved hymns, and in 1779 published a hymnal that included “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” 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.

That same year, Newton’s ministry brought him to London.  He influenced the life and work of William Wilberforce, the guiding force in the effort to end slavery in the British Empire.  In 1788 Newton wrote his Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, recounting the miserable conditions that slaves were forced to endure.  Slaves were chained and stacked in ships’ holds that were only five feet tall, then horizontally divided.  They might lay in their own filth for a week at a time.  One quarter of all slaves died en route to the plantations. Newton’s testimony raised public indignation over the evil of slavery. In the end, the self-proclaimed “old African blasphemer” changed the world.

Abby Johnson’s road has been different, a road she recounts in her instant bestseller, unPlanned.  Johnson started college looking for ways to change the world.  She thought she found one when a recruiter told her that Planned Parenthood gives women choices that help to make abortions rare.  Johnson eagerly climbed aboard and eventually became the director of a facility.  But she became increasingly uncomfortable as she began to learn the truth about Planned Parenthood’s agenda.

One day the truth hit Johnson right between the eyes.  Asked to hold an ultrasound probe during an abortion, she could see the helpless baby trying to kick free as the doctor’s instruments scraped its body.  She saw the baby being twisted like a dishcloth.  Its mangled body soon disappeared into a suction tube.  Johnson had participated in death.  “How did it come to this?  How did I let it happen?”

When Adam and Eve sinned, their eyes opened and they saw their nakedness.  It wasn’t as if they were previously unable to see.  After all, they had to find their way in the Garden.  Instead, they had blinded themselves to the sin they were about to commit.  When they fell, they saw the nakedness of their shame and tried to hide it from God.

We’re no different.  We have allowed ourselves to be blinded by abortion.  We speak about it in the abstract, if we speak of it at all.  We extol it as an act of freedom or excuse it as an act of release.  We rationalize it as an act of compassion for mother and even for baby.  But it is an unspeakable evil, raw and brutal and ghastly at every stage.

When the Allies entered the Nazi death camps, the sights sickened General Eisenhower.  He ordered his generals and all available soldiers and journalists to the camps so that they could see firsthand the face of evil.  If we are to end legal abortion, we must look it in the face.  We who see legal abortion as a freedom, a right of choice, must understand the reality of that choice.  We who say that it is better that the baby not be born than to live a hard life must see how we let them die, even up to the very moment of birth.  We who say that legalized abortion is just one of many issues must identify any other issue that looks like this one.  And we who would rather not think about abortion must think about what that means to the unborn.  We don’t need to wield cutters, forceps, and suction tubes to be abortionists.  We just need to remain comfy in our homes and offices, our parishes and pulpits.  Silent in word.  Missing from action.

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. For John Newton and Abby Johnson, the sight of evil changed both their lives and the world.  God’s grace works in amazing ways.

Even through videos.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they are raising their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2011.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Comments?  Visit us at

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