After a difficult loss to the Americans in the Revolutionary War, the British were heartened by Admiral Nelson’s recent naval victories against the French. King George III issued a proclamation of prayer and praise, and John Newton (1725 – 1807) used the occasion to call the nation to repentance. His sermon title: “Motives to Humiliation and Praise.” The date: December 19, 1797.
Newton, himself, was no stranger to repentance, for he once served in the slave trade. His conversion was a great work of Christ, the inspiration for his hymn, “Amazing Grace.” When he wrote and sang, “saved a wretch like me,” he meant it. Though his sermon text addressed the Israelites, Newton knew the lesson applied as well to his own people. Here he defined “national sins,” found grave culpability in gospel hardened Britain, and pressed his countrymen to repent.
8. How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? How shall I deliver thee, Israel? How shall I make thee as Admah? How shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together. 9. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger; I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God, and not man, the Holy One in the midst of thee . . . Hosea 11:8-9 (KJV)
But can we read the history of Israel, without remarking how strongly it resembles our own? Have we not been equally distinguished from the nations around us, by spiritual and temporal blessings, and by our gross misimprovement of them? We are assembled this day to join in public thanksgivings for public mercies, but we have great cause for public humiliation likewise. We have much reason to rejoice in the goodness of the Lord; but we have reason to temper our joy with trembling, when we compare the state of things around us, with that of Ephraim and Judah in the days of the prophet Hosea . . .
Let us consider sin as the procuring cause of all our troubles. Let us recognize his hand in them, and confess that, in all the distress he has brought upon us, he has not dealt with us as our iniquities deserve . . .1
In this sense, I fear the sins of Great Britain are of a deeper dye than those of any nation in Europe; because they are committed against greater advantages and privileges than any other people have enjoyed. May not the Lord appeal to ourselves, as to Israel of old, “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done?”. . .2
There are likewise sins so generally prevalent, so familiar and habitual in every rank of life, that they may properly be called national; because, either by their nature or their frequency, they mark and distinguish our public morals . . .3
The contempt of the Gospel of Christ will, I fear, be found a national sin, with the exception of the comparatively few who cordially embrace it . . . This Gospel is shunned and dreaded like a pestilence, and the strongest exertions are made to prevent its entrance, or to expel it, if possible. The ministers who preach faithfully, are stigmatized and misrepresented . . .4
Oppression is a national sin . . . If the [slave] trade is at present carried on to the same extent, and nearly in the same manner, while we are delaying from year to year to put a stop to our part of it, the blood of many thousands of our helpless, much-injured fellow-creatures, is crying against us . . .5
1 John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), 279.
2 Ibid., 280.
3 Ibid., 284.
4 Ibid., 287.
5 Ibid., 290-291.