It is Well, for Amazing Grace

The more I think about how many trials and hurts of life some people have used to create incredible works which glorify the Lord, I wonder what the world would be like if everyone used their experiences in their gifts in that way instead of glorifying the world.

A portion of the New Testament was written by Paul as he was awaiting trial in Rome, the book of Revelation was written while John was in exile on Patmos- after he’d already been persecuted almost to death.  In the Old Testament, we have many of the Psalms of David, written and sung as he was facing all kinds of trials and threats from enemies.

In 1861, the American Civil War began April 12th, and Fanny Longfellow the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident in their home’s library on July 10th the same year.

The day before the accident, Fanny Longfellow trimmed her middle daughter Edith’s hair and decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. A strong sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting the light material of Fanny’s dress and went up in flames. In her attempt to protect Edith and youngest daughter Allegra, she ran to Henry’s study in the next room, where Henry frantically attempted put out the flames with a throw rug. Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances– severely burning his face, arms, and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Henry did not attend her funeral because of his own burns and grief.

A year after Fanny’s death, Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Almost another year later, he received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow’s journal.  Even though his son Charles survived his wounds, the too sharp memories of war and death was memorialized when on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the words of the poem, “Christmas Bells.”

“Amazing Grace” is probably the most beloved hymn of the last two centuries. The song is estimated to be performed 10 million times annually and has appeared on over 11,000 albums. It was referenced in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and regained popularity during both the Civil War and the Vietnam War. It has been sung by recording artists such as Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Elvis.

The song was written by a former slave trader, John Newton who converted to Christianity and took up the abolitionist cause. When Newton was a crew member on the slave ship on one of the voyages home, the ship was caught in a severe storm off the coast of Ireland and almost sank. Newton prayed and the cargo miraculously shifted to fill a hole in the ship’s hull and the vessel drifted to safety.

Newton took this as a sign from God and caused him to be converted to Christianity. His ways weren’t changed immediately, and his conversion was gradual like many ‘baby’ Christians. He wrote, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.” However while reading the Bible he began to view his captives with a more sympathetic view.

Newton made three more voyages as the captain of two different slave vessels after his conversion and then retired after suffering a stroke in 1754. In 1764, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and wrote 280 hymns to accompany his services. He wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” in 1772.

In 1788 he renounced his former slaving profession by publishing “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” The tract described the horrific conditions on slave ships and Newton apologized for making a public statement so many years after participating in the trade: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

The pamphlet was so popular it was reprinted several times and sent to every Member of Parliament. Under the leadership of MP William Wilberforce, the English civil government outlawed slavery in Great Britain in 1807 and Newton lived to see it, dying in December of that year.

Devout Christian Horatio G. Spafford was a Presbyterian layman from Chicago. He had established a very successful legal practice as a young businessman. Among his close friends were several evangelists including fellow Chicagoan, the famous Dwight L. Moody.

Tragedy struck Spafford as his son died, and almost immediately after he lost everything in the aftermath of the great Chicago Fire of 1871.  He wanted his wife and 4 daughters to have a break for a while, and also wanted to join and help Moody and his musician during one of their Gospel campaigns in Great Britain, so he planned a European trip for his family in 1873.

In November of that year, he had to remain in Chicago due to business commitments, but sent his wife and four daughters on ahead as scheduled on the S.S. Ville du Havre. On November 22 their ship was struck by an English vessel, and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors were finally landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband, ‘Saved alone.’”

Spafford left immediately to join his wife. The hymn “It is Well with My Soul” is said to have been written as he approached the area of the ocean thought to be where the ship carrying his daughters had sunk.

After the birth of three more children, Spafford and his wife moved to Jerusalem, establishing the American Colony, a Christian utopian society engaged in philanthropic activities among Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The Colony was no longer a communal society by the 1950s, but continued on as the American Colony Hotel. Spafford was buried in Jerusalem when he died in October, 1888.

American Gospel writer Fanny Crosby was born in 1820. Two months later, she contracted an illness. Her family’s doctor was away, so another man—pretending to be a certified doctor—treated her by prescribing hot mustard poultices to be applied to her eyes. She survived her illness, but the treatments left her blind. Fanny was raised mostly by her grandmother, who was a strong Christian after the death of her father shortly after her illness. Her mother was forced to find work as a maid to support the family.

She began writing poetry when she was eight years old, and even then her words showed her refusal to feel sorry for herself. She was also memorizing the Bible from a young age, and could recite much of the Old Testament and the Gospels as a youngster.  Just before she turned 15, she was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind, where she spent 23 years total, with 11 years as a teacher. She was encouraged to keep writing her poetry.

In 1858 she was married to another member of the institute, Alexander van Alstine who was a gifted organist and put many of her poems to music. Crosby herself put music to only a few of hers, though she played harp, piano, guitar, and other instruments.

She was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher  but often wrote six or seven a day and many became popular. When Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey began using them during their services they became beloved by millions.

Among thousands she has written,  “Blessed Assurance,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” “Rescue the Perishing,” and “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” are among the most popular, still sung by many churches today.

Once a well-meaning preacher said to her, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you.”

Having heard similar many times, Fanny responded, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.”

It’s incredible the diamonds made by pressure, and incredible more that so many lives are interwoven and touched by people using their tragedies to follow the Lord.

Happy Sunday Afternoon all.