“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.”
Of all the beautiful hymns in the Christian tradition, “Amazing Grace” touches my heart more than any other. In just a few words, it captures the power of hope and redemption – of being lost or broken, and then finding one’s way to healing and transformation.
Redemption and transformation are certainly evident in the story of John Newton, who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace.” You see, Newton spent a number of years as a ship captain in the international slave trade. Newton’s voyages would begin in a British port, where his ship would take on cheap weapons and other manufactured goods. Those goods were then taken to the West African coast, where they were traded for human beings. Slaves were kidnapped from their tribes and homes, forced into the filthy holds of Newton’s slave ship, subjected to a terrifying voyage in which many died of disease and despair until they were finally sold into slavery in the Caribbean, South America, or in these United States.
Shortly before he was to leave England on yet another slave trading voyage, Newton suffered some kind of fit or attack, which he took to be a sign from God that he should start saving, rather than enslaving, souls. Newton’s conversion led him to become a minister in the Church of England, where he became well known as a preacher and a writer of beautiful hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”
Unfortunately, stories like John Newton’s were the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of those profiting from the slave trade - ship captains, manufacturers, and plantation owners in the New World - had no conversion experience or moment of grace that led them to stop trafficking in and enslaving human beings. During the height of the triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, over 80,000 Africans a year were kidnapped and brutally transported into slavery.
While a few slave traders like John Newton questioned the morality of slavery, most felt that what they were doing was natural, ethical, and sanctioned by religion. As many pro-slavery arguments put it, God created a “great chain of being” in which some are born to rule while others are destined for servitude. And if there was any doubt about the morality of slavery in God’s great chain of being, one need only look at the numerous biblical passages that approve of slavery or listen to the Apostle Paul’s famous advice that slaves should “obey their masters.”
For almost two centuries, the morality of slavery remained largely unquestioned in Europe and the Americas. But then, beginning in the late 1700s, things began to change. Something stirred in the collective conscience of the slave trading and slave owning nations. Revolutions in the United States and France popularized the idea that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights. Dissenting movements within Christianity, including both Unitarianism and Universalism, affirmed a God of universal love and justice – a God who created the entire human family in the divine image.
At first, those stirrings were very small and included only a few politicians, a handful of writers, and, most importantly, former slaves who testified to slavery’s brutality and inhumanity. But by the end of the 18th century, those few lonely voices had grown into a powerful moral and political force – a force that led to the eventual abolition of both the slave trade and slavery.
The moral arguments against slavery and the political movement to abolish it played a central role in the life of Charles Darwin. He grew up in a family that lived and breathed antislavery ideas and activism. His paternal grandfather, the well known physician and radical thinker, Erasmus Darwin, dedicated himself to abolition after learning that iron collars made in his home town of Birmingham were being fastened around the necks and linked together by a chain so that kidnapped Africans could not escape bondage.
Charles Darwin’s other grandfather, the famed potter, Josiah Wedgewood (as in Wedgewood China), played an even more important role in abolition. The Wedgewoods were Unitarians and followers of the famed Unitarian minister and chemist, Joseph Priestly. Priestly taught that far from justifying slavery, the Bible was a call to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And as to the crucial question of who is our neighbor, Priestly shared the Universalist conviction that all human beings, all human beings are brothers and sisters and that God loves all humankind, without regard to religion, rank, or race.
Josiah Wedgewood’s hatred of slavery led him to create and mass produce what turned out to be the most famous and compelling symbol and phrase in the history of the antislavery movement. That symbol is on the cover of your order of service and I invite you to take a look at it. It consists of a picture of a slave held in chains and the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that image and those words did more to advance the moral and political cause of abolition than anything else. And remember, that symbol was created and produced by Charles Darwin’s grandfather.
Before moving on to Darwin’s own story and his own perspective on slavery, I want to take a moment to say a word about this image. To be perfectly honest, I find it both inspiring and deeply disturbing. I’m so very moved by its beautiful words – by the principles of human dignity and brotherhood they affirm. But that image of the African slave, on bended knee, meekly accepting his servitude and pleading to be saved by the conscience and good deeds of benevolent whites – that image is, quite frankly, racist. Think about it. It portrays the slave as weak, supplicant, and in need of white benevolence. In point of fact, slaves across the New World were far from weak or supplicant as they courageously resisted and challenged the institution of slavery through organized revolts, running away, purchasing their freedom, and simply by surviving so that their children and grandchildren might one day be free. So while we celebrate the words and deeds of the white abolitionists, it is important to remember that the true leaders and the true heroes of the antislavery movement were always, always, the slaves themselves.
Charles Darwin was born in 1809 two years after Great Britain outlawed the international slave trade. Throughout Darwin’s childhood, his family remained deeply committed to the antislavery cause, writing letters and signing petitions to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. Although Darwin never participated in a protest or made speeches on behalf of abolition, his lifelong abhorrence of slavery and his commitment to abolition cannot be doubted. Through his journals, letters, and published writings, it is clear that Darwin fervently believed in the fundamental unity of humankind, rejected all justifications for slavery based on race or religion, and sought through his scientific endeavors to undermine the emerging pseudo-scientific arguments claiming that Africans were a different species, inferior, beastly, and therefore unworthy of the same rights and privileges as Europeans.
Darwin boarded The HMS Beagle in December of 1831 for a five year voyage that would change his life and the modern world. The voyage is often remembered primarily for the diverse animal species Darwin encountered on the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere. His observations and specimens provided the foundation for his revolutionary idea that all living things are interrelated through descent from a common ancestor. Darwin called this idea descent with modification and argued that it is driven primarily by natural selection – the process by which populations adapt to their local environment and then pass those adaptations on to their descendants.
But as much as Darwin was impacted by finches, iguanas, and giant tortoises during his voyage on The Beagle, he was equally influenced by the diverse human populations he encountered and by his first-hand experience with the brutality of slavery. One evening while walking near the home of a notorious slave owner in Brazil, Darwin heard a heart-piercing scream followed by terrible moaning. He imagined that a slave was being whipped or perhaps subjected to some other kind of torture. While so many continued to justify slavery because of the supposed inferiority of the black race, Darwin heard the scream of a brother or a sister. His encounters with diverse human populations – Patagonian Indians, aborigines in Australia, and many others – further convinced Darwin that in the midst of all that differentiates humankind, those differences are truly only skin deep and that we are all, each and every one of us, a member of one family, descended from a common ancestor, and deserving of dignity and respect.
After returning home from his voyage on The Beagle in 1836, Darwin spent the better part of three decades developing and refining his scientific ideas. Recognizing the enormous implications of proposing a theory of life’s origins and development that required no supernatural creator, Darwin delayed publication of his path breaking book, The Origin of Species, until 1859.
But slavery and racism were never far from his mind or his research. Darwin continued to explore human origins, seeking evidence and developing theories to support his deeply held belief in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings. He eventually published a book called The Descent of Man in which he explained that differences in skin color were a product of something called sexual selection and were not evidence that races represented different species. To the end of his life, Charles Darwin insisted that, as his antislavery beliefs and convictions made clear, humankind is one species, one family, sharing one common ancestry.
And that takes us back to where we began, to John Newton and his wonderful hymn, “Amazing Grace.” If the history of slavery, racism, and all forms or oppression teaches us anything, it is that we human beings can truly become lost and broken, losing touch with our best selves and our common humanity. But as easy as it is to get lost, we can also become found and see with new eyes as we come to understand that in the midst of all that separates and divides us, we are part of one family and one web of life – a family and a web filled with dignity and worth.
Those are the principles and values that guided Charles Darwin’s life and work. And they are the principles and values that must guide us if we are ever to live in a world overflowing with brotherhood and sisterhood – a world in which the human family truly lives together and loves one another in a spirit of freedom, justice, and peace.