Mars Hill Forum #5: Bishop John Shelby Spong and the Mockery of Amazing Grace

John C. Rankin

[excerpted and adapted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 2, not published]

Now retired Episcopal Bishop John Spong is one of the first bishops in the country to ordain avowed and practicing homosexuals to the priesthood. One of his many books is entitled, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. With his book as the predicate, he accepted an invitation to address a January, 1994, Mars Hill Forum at Yale. In his book, along with his other writings, Spong reproaches fundamentalists and evangelicals alike as being Luddites – as people opposed to learning, science and scholarship, as intolerant, racist, and sexist homophobes.

In his book, he writes:

“The well-known and much-loved gospel hymn “Amazing Grace” was in fact penned on the deck of a slave ship with its writhing human cargo below struggling to survive their kidnapping from Africa, later to endure the cruelty of the master’s lash, the breakup of families, sexual violations, and all the other dehumanizing marks of this evil system. Yet slavery stands approved and accepted in the writings of the Apostle Paul, whose words are regarded by many Christians as the inerrant Word of God. A God who tolerates slavery can hardly be God for this generation” (p.102).

[I address this subject in my 2008 Mars Hill Forum with the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright: “The Bible, Race and American History: What are the Issues?”]

When I read this, I was incredulous – especially since I had done a research paper on John Newton when in seminary. What a false statement, and with such bravado. During my forum with Bishop Spong, he repeated the same caricatures concerning fundamentalists and evangelicals. During our one-on-one interaction, I read him this quote from his book.

I then asked him: If he were so committed to honest scholarship, how could he present such a glaring misrepresentation? I asked him: What evidence did he have that John Newton penned the hymn while captaining a slave ship?

I pointed out that Amazing Grace first appeared in the publication of the Olney Hymns in 1779, over three decades after his slave-trading days, and that his years of ministry in Olney, England, were from 1764-1780. In those years, John Newton held a mid-week prayer meeting with his parishioners, including the poet William Cowper. He and Cowper would regularly write hymns for the mid-week meeting across these years, finally publishing them in 1779.

I asked John Spong if he had any evidence that Newton wrote this hymn before his coming to Olney in 1764, those many years after he stopped captaining ships. I then gave brief profile about Newton’s witness to William Wilberforce and the outcome of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Whereas Spong was charging evangelicals as being in favor of slavery, I evidenced that it was evangelicals in Great Britain who uniquely, courageously, and based on their evangelical and biblical convictions, most successfully opposed it.

I did not have time in that moment to challenge his misreading of Paul, which I have already addressed, or his facile charge that African slaves were “kidnapped” (some were, but most were sold into slavery by opposing African tribes – thus revealing the origins of the African slave trade not to be primarily racial in terms of skin color, but to be tribalistic and classist at the deeper level, and as motivated too by predatory economics).

To these questions Bishop Spong gave no answer – only a weak disclaimer about the central meaning of his purpose in writing those words. All of a sudden, he was not concerned with competent and honest scholarship. I let it go with a very mild response – taking confidence in the power of understatement. Some people afterward said I should have “let him have it” for such dishonesty and hypocrisy. But I said no – it is not a matter of personal ego-turf, but an attempt to embrace the power to live in the light and the power to love hard questions. It is only Genesis that has the power to say no to sexism, racism and classism. A heritage celebrated by the British abolitionists who confessed Christ Jesus as Lord.