The following is a guest post (part 1 of 3) from Nathan Apodaca, who blogs at Merely Human Ministries and Human Defense Initiative. I previously blogged about his legal victory against California State University – San Marcos. In this post, he writes about the first two heroes in his list of four.
“I shall have made nothing, if I had not made mistakes.”
-Winston S. Churchill, in a letter to his wife Clementine while serving in France during World War I
In his book Letters to a Young Progressive: How to Avoid Wasting Your Life Protesting the Things You Don’t Understand, the well-known conservative professor Dr. Mike Adams had a chapter lamenting the crisis of courage he was witnessing among many young Christian men. While teaching at Summit Ministries in Colorado during the summer, he had noticed many young Christian men lacked the courage to stand by their convictions when pressed upon by the broader culture. Many young men would find excuses to not be bolder in their convictions. Some would cite (but largely misunderstanding) Bible passages such as Matthew 5:38-40, about turning the other cheek, in order to justify a lack of boldness.
Unfortunately, the problem has only grown over the past several years, and affects young women just as it does men. Many men have been left with an identity crisis of sorts, with growing attacks on “toxic masculinity” and a corresponding lack of discussion of what real masculinity looks like. Because of this, many men are left without an understanding of what it looks like to lead, to be courageous under pressure, to face criticism and all manner of vile pushback, and to engage critics with boldness as well as dignity.
One way to answer this problem is to simply examine the lives of men who made history and changed the world for the better. Sadly, thanks to the influence of secular worldviews such as postmodernism, Marxism, and progressivism, this is often met with a sneer. After all, the men who made history often made horrendous mistakes along the way. It’s not all that unsurprising that statues honoring great men such as Washington, Lincoln, and others have been viciously attacked and desecrated in the past year. Our culture sneers at heroes, but ironically doesn’t have a clue on how to produce better men and women today.
Reading biographies is one way I have personally tried to learn how to be a better man, regardless of what the culture says, and I believe there is great value in studying the lives of those who have made history. Examining the lives of great men should be done honestly, learning from both the triumphs of our historical heroes and from the mistakes they have made. Blind hero worship is foolhardy, but so is an air of “chronological snobbery” and thinking we are better than people of the past because we don’t make the same mistakes they made, even while making our own, sometimes graver, mistakes.
Some people may vary in their choice of reading, but generally my selection of biographies to study will fall into three categories: saints, soldiers, and statesmen, and often a mixture of the three. Some were non-Christians, but still exemplify character virtues that deserve examination.
Here is a brief list of some men whose stories I have benefited from studying.
1. William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
There is a cultural cliche that is often uttered without much thought, one person cannot change the world. Wilberforce is a wonderful exception. Becoming a minister in the British parliament in his early 20s, and developing a close bond with other notable statesmen such as the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce came of age in British politics during a time of great social upheaval in Europe and abroad, in conjunction with both the American and French revolutions.
Battling a lifetime of health complications, Wilberforce also grappled with the moral and spiritual health of the British Empire, declaring “God has set before me two great objects: The abolition of the slave trade, and the reformation of (morals)”. After gaining invaluable spiritual counsel from older men such as the famed minister John Newton, Wilberforce decided to remain in politics after his conversion to Christianity, and to undertake the monumental challenge of leading the struggle to abolish the British slave trade. Confronting the horrors of the Atlantic Middle passage from Africa to the West Indies and sugar plantation slave trading, Wilberforce also faced setbacks in his own cause for years, due to societal moral apathy and opposition in the ranks of British politics and aristocracy as well as his own health problems. Still, he stayed the course, and was able to see his God-given mission through to the end, with the total abolition of slavery in the British Empire shortly before his death in 1833. His story is told in great books such as Kevin Belmonte’s A Hero for Humanity, Eric Metaxes’ Amazing Grace, as well as on screen in the 2007 movie of the same name.
2. John Newton (1725-1807)
Speaking of Amazing Grace, the story of John Newton is also one that is worth examining. Born on August 4th, 1725 in Wapping, England to a well-known sea captain, Newton as a young man would hardly have seemed like the sort of man to give spiritual advice to the statesman who would be responsible for leading the fight against the evils of the slave trade. Vulgar, proudly atheistic, and rebellious, Newton began a career in seafaring against his own volition. While on a visit with a young lady named Polly Catlett, whom Newton was deeply in love with, Newton was captured a British Navy press gang, and forced into service with the Royal Navy. This began a series of misadventures at sea that found him deserting his ship to be with Polly, being arrested, stripped of his military rank and flogged, (a lenient sentence, as desertion from the Royal Navy in this period often carried with it the penalty of death). Later, he found himself working at a slave processing center on the African coastline. At one point, he became enslaved himself to a sadistic African princess. Along the way, as he experienced many near misses with death, Newton began to realize that maybe there was a God who had been looking out for him.
After escaping the African continent, Newton became a crewmember on a cargo ship bound for America, where he began reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. Realizing his own woeful moral and spiritual state, he began reconsidering the truth claims of Christianity. During the same voyage, the ship was caught in a terrible storm and barely managed to limp back to Britain. Later, he married his beloved Ms. Catlett, and remained deeply in love with her throughout the course of her life.
Newton, now a follower of Christ, eventually became the captain of his own slave ship on the Middle Passage, where he began slowly waking up to the evils of slavery, as well as the inhumane environment many sailors lived in.
After a health problem ended his seafaring career, Newton became a minister, and formed several relationships that would ultimately have historical and moral significance in addition to the eternal. One of these relationships was with the hymn-writer and minister William Cowper, a man troubled by suicidal thoughts, depression, and mental illness. It is through this relationship that the most famous song in the world, “Amazing Grace”, was born. The hymn was for a New Years Day service, during a period when Newton was pastoring Cowper during a time of mental anguish. The song reflects Newton’s acknowledgement of his own spiritual state and the beauty of God’s forgiveness.
Another relationship of Newton’s that has already been mentioned is his relationship to a young William Wilberforce. Meeting Wilberforce when he was still a boy and living with his Aunt and Uncle, Newton left a deep impression on the future British statesman. When Wilberforce converted to Christianity and considered leaving politics to become a minister, Newton encouraged him to stay the course. Ultimately, this would have profound implications, as Newton assisted Wilberforce greatly in the anti-slavery cause, even testifying to Parliament himself about the evil and sadistic nature of the slave trade. In a moment of Providential irony that can only be explained by God’s common grace, the formerly bitter atheist and slave ship captain became a key component in the fight to liberate enslaved men, women and children. Newton maintained an awareness of his own need for Christ until the end of his life, famously remarking just before his death that “Though my memory is fading, I remember two things: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”
Newton’s story is told in the phenomenal biography From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken, and Newton is portrayed in the film Amazing Grace by the actor Charles Finney.