Winners of Souls

Missionaries expended their lives for the betterment of the people they served

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Faith

John Newton began his career as a slave trader. He abandoned the non-conformist Christian faith of his childhood, but the dying embers of his conscience eventually burst into flame again, fanned by the horrors of the trade, so that he turned his back on his past and became a leading abolitionist, a priest, and a spiritual advisor to William Wilberforce. He strenuously campaigned for a total end to slavery and fought on tirelessly until his death just a few months after Parliament banned the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807. Today he is best remembered for his hymn Amazing Grace.

In 1787 he wrote a short hymn for his friend the Rev. Richard Johnson, who had been appointed Chaplain to the First Fleet:

The Lord who sends thee hence, will be thine aid:

In vain at thee the lion, Danger, roars;

His arm and love shall keep thee undismayed

On tempest-tossèd seas, and savage shores.

 

Go, bear the Savior’s name to lands unknown,

Tell to the southern world his wondrous grace;

An energy Divine thy words shall own,

And draw their untaught hearts to seek His face.

 

Many in quest of gold or empty fame

Would compass earth, or venture near the poles:

But how much nobler thy reward and aim—

To spread His praise, and win immortal souls.

On February 3, 1788, Johnson preached what is generally thought to have been the first Christian sermon on Australian soil, taking as his text a verse from Psalm 116, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me?”

No doubt there were many in his congregation who couldn’t quite see eye to eye with him on the worth of those “benefits,” and there would be many among the aboriginal population who would come to resent them bitterly. Many today feel only anger when they consider the price paid for that first settlement and for the nation that eventually emerged from it. Expressions such as “savage shores” and “untaught hearts” are offensive to many a modern ear.

Yet that little hymn deserves a closer look. Its emphasis is not on the convicts and their guards, but on the native peoples and their “immortal souls.” Winning those souls for Christ is the noblest of ventures, greater by far than any quest for gold or fame. It is often claimed by the very ignorant that Christians believed “native peoples” to be sub-human. The absurdity of that is belied by the actions of countless men and women who expended their lives as missionaries, social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and administrators to the betterment of the people they served.

Passing judgement on human endeavors is always difficult because no one’s hands are clean and our successes are always compromised by sin. But we live now in a great and diverse nation, blended from the blood of many races, and built upon Christian morality, even if the Faith itself has been (for the moment) sorely weakened. There is much to be thankful for.

 

David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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