On a dark night just outside London, a big, horse-drawn carriage made its way through a driving rainstorm. One of its occupants was a handsome young man named William Wilberforce.
As the carriage made a turn in the road, Wilberforce spotted an angry individual flogging a big, black horse lying in the mud. He saw the beast being struck repeatedly, only managing to lift its head off the ground, a wild look in its eyes.
Now, you may wonder, what does a horse, stuck in the mud, have to do with the most well-known hymn in the world? Read on to find out.
It was this same, strong William Wilberforce, with jaw firmly set, who signaled the driver of the carriage to stop. Though dressed in evening attire, he exited the carriage, sloshed through the mud and reached out, grabbing the rod and stopping the man as he raised his hand to strike the animal yet again. As he did so, he minced no words in shouting to the perpetrator that he would do better to allow the severely abused beast to rest for a time.
A second man standing off to the side whispered to the man with rod still in hand that the individual challenging him was none other than William Wilberforce, who, back in the late 1700s, was a well-known abolitionist and member of the British Parliament.
Both men backed away as Wilberforce threw the rod to the ground and then went about his way hoping for better things for the poor horse.
This one act of kindness toward a stricken animal gives us a picture of a person who cared deeply, not just about the welfare of animals, of course, but much more so for the welfare of people. His acts of kindness and generosity were to shine throughout his life. This was to be indicative of his deep concern — particularly for enslaved Black people — this when slavery was prevalent in Britain, and in America, and many other countries of the world.
The unconscionable slave trade was lucrative for hundreds of years, African Black people often selling their own countrymen to ruthless traders.
Good friends with William Wilberforce, at the time of our American Revolution, was another Britisher named William Pitt, who, at age 24, became the youngest figure ever to serve as Britain’s Prime Minister. He was one of the few with political power sympathetic to the cause that Wilberforce espoused. Both men bravely joined for years in fighting the intense opposition they faced in Parliament, and both lost their health during this time, Pitt dying at age 46 before victory in their cause was finally achieved. On his deathbed, he told Wilberforce that he was afraid to die — and that he envied his friend his strong faith in the hereafter.
Wilberforce, meanwhile, recovered from the illness he had suffered from for years and lived to be 74. He spent the remainder of his life in such causes as better education for the underprivileged and prison reform.
The two friends are buried beside each other in London’s famed Westminster Abbey.
Wilberforce had another friend of many years named John Newton who happened to be his minister in the Episcopal Church. Newton, for decades, had unbelievably been the captain of one of the many slave ships which, under despicable conditions, had transported literally millions of slaves from Africa to the Americas. Half of them died en route.
Plagued in his declining years by the knowledge of the terrible wrongs he had done, Newton often recalled a violent storm in 1748 that battered his vessel off the coast of Ireland’s County Donegal. Fearing the ship would sink, he called out to God for mercy and gratefully felt his prayers answered. The event marked the beginning of his spiritual conversion. In his later years, he sadly confessed that “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection in me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
Newton spent the remainder of his life, to age 82, repenting of his sins — doing whatever he could to make amends. He constantly encouraged Wilberforce in the intense political battle over slavery until Parliament, after years of struggle, finally outlawed Britain’s involvement. Victory at last — the final vote being 283 yeas to 16 nays.
It was this repentant slave trader who, in 1772, penned the words for what was to become the most recognizable Christian hymn throughout the world with its message of forgiveness and redemption. The music for the piece is attributed to William Walker, an American composer who used the traditional tune, “New Britain.” It has been sung worldwide for well over 200 years.
Published in 1779, it was the simple, yet profound words and melody of “Amazing Grace” that were sung by soldiers on both sides of America’s Civil War. It was sung when the hated Berlin Wall finally came down ending Communist rule in East Germany; it was sung on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam, and it was the favorite hymn of South Africa’s famed leader Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner himself for 27 years, as well as being sung many times by Salt Lake City’s Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
Be sure to take the opportunity to watch a powerful 2006 film titled “Amazing Grace” available on DVD starring Albert Finney as John Newton and British Actor Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce. We have enjoyed seeing it several times, never tiring of the amazing story of “Amazing Grace.”
Dean & Nancy Hoch are part of the local Communication Council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They may be reached at email@example.com.