Friday, July 24, 2015

Happy Birthday with added deception

Today's Writer's Almanac offers the standard almost dateless capsule of birthday boy John Newton's life:
"In 1748, he had a spiritual conversion on a journey back to England. He almost drowned in a terrible storm, but he prayed to God, and the ship did not sink. After that, he stopped gambling and drinking, and he married a girl he had loved for many years. Newton was ordained as a minister. He gave up the slave trade entirely, and later in his life he became an outspoken abolitionist"
Notice how there's only one date, that of the miraculous prayer and intervention that set Newton on his new life. Or did it? Let us add 3 more dates:
  • 1748 as noted.
  • 1754 while still captaining a slave ship has stroke; stops sailing but continues investing in slaves.
  • From 1757 to 1764 studies for the ministry and becomes first a lay and then ordained minister.
  • 1788 publishes his pamphlet and becomes outspoken abolitionist.
In 1748 Newton prays to God during a storm and his ship doesn't sink. He reforms his life. But he continues to captain a slave ship and to trade in slaves. Even after he has a stroke that prevents him from being aboard a ship, he continues to invest in the slave trade. Clearly, slavery is not one of the things he thinks God wants him to give up.

This is important because the dateless biography strongly implies an immediate cause-and-effect sequence that simply isn't there. Slavery and Christianity went hand in hand for centuries in England and the US, and decades in Newton's life. "Amazing Grace" was not about seeing the light concerning slavery; he "stopped gambling and drinking " but he did not stop carrying, or trading in, slaves. Newton did do yeoman's work in the cause but he didn't start until 40 years after his conversion event. Implying otherwise is deeply dishonest.

And staggeringly common.

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