I visited the grave of the man who wrote "Amazing Grace" yesterday.It's in a beautiful, overgrown old churchyard in Olney in Bedfordshire that looks down on the muddy River Ouse, surrounded by smaller graves so age-mottled, in the main, the inscriptions can no longer be read. John Newton, the song's author, was the vicar (if I have the terminology correct) of the church there, a marvellous building whose uneven brown stones support a spire so great it can be seen from some distance away, pointing into Heaven.
Standing over Newton's bones was moving even for an old Heathen like me. I've loved the song all my life, as I love many of the great Christian songs. But Newton's example, I believe--having been, as he once was, a slave trader--exercised a powerful influence on William Wilberforce, who as we all know was the principle figure in this country behind the abolition of the slave trade. So one man's conversion to God, and his ability to articulate his spiritual journey in song (albeit, apparently, with the aid of William Cowper), helped set in motion one of the most monumental and civilising changes in English history.
Which demonstrates powerfully why a sense of civic responsibility--if it is combined with a strong personal morality--is such an important thing for a man or woman to have. Especially in times like ours when we may be lurching back into a world not dissimilar to the one we knew in the Dark Ages.