I wasn’t surprised during a recent family reunion when a relative shared that my maternal side of the family’s ancestry can be traced to West Africa (Ghana) based on DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing. Such is the case for countless numbers of other African ancestors who were sent to America, Europe, or the Caribbean as free labor for the colonies during the seventeenth century. The past must still resonate as loudly as an African drum in the dark dungeons of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where millions of slaves were shackled and horribly maltreated as they awaited the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Ultimately, they were taken through a colossal wooden door that became known as “The Door of No Return”—for never again would they set foot on African soil or experience the freedom of enjoying basic human rights. Rather, grave humiliation, dehumanization, and a lifetime of slavery were what the future afforded. That is, if the trans-Atlantic crossing was survived.
Shackled and packed tightly, with little or no headroom, in fierce tropical heat, tortured with both thirst and hunger, the death rate during the 40- to 60- day voyage was often as high as 20 percent.1 Joseph C. Miller, in his book The Way of Death, wrote: “On the Spanish ship La Panchiata, active during the late 1820s, the men on the slave deck sat upright in rows in a space so low that none could stand, legs spread, and knees raised so that each occupied the space between the limbs of the man behind.”2 These conditions, along with having to sit or lie in their own urine, feces, or vomit, augmented the imminence of death. Yet, there was little concern for lost cargo on the ships because of the high profitability of the slave trading industry.
Going through “the door of no return,” whether through Ghana’s Cape Coast or Elmina castle, meant to give up or lose hope for the estimated 12 million Africans who transitioned to what may have been even more horrific circumstances.3 But today this writer can exclaim with heartfelt praise and gratitude that there is another door. For Jesus promises in John 10:9 that He is, in fact, that Door: “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” Yes, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, the one who will one day right the abhorrent wrongs of slavery and other woes, makes a universal call to everyone who desires access to the spiritual kingdom to enter this door in order to enjoy all of the privileges of true salvation—protection, safety, security, peace, freedom, and everlasting life. He further promises in Revelation 3:8: “I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it.” Here Christ provides a door of unlimited opportunity for personal victory in the struggle of sin, and for sharing the good news of the gospel. His work of redemption will continue until it is completed. Nothing and no one can hinder His ministry in the courts of heaven or His control over the affairs of the earth.4
John Newton understood the bountiful blessings of this open door following his own conversion from captain of an English slave ship to a minister of the gospel and prolific songwriter. At age 82 he is quoted as saying: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”5 Clearly, this message is most acknowledged in the words of one of the most renowned hymns of all times, penned by Newton following a treacherous storm while navigating across the Atlantic with a cargo of slaves:
“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.”
2Miller, J. The Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade (Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).
4SDA Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980).
Originally published in Message Magazine’s January/February 2011 Edition