The Amazing Granville Sharp

Granville SharpA few times in the last two years, I have heard someone mention Granville Sharp. I have only heard his name while listening to the audio of theology discussions and lectures, and only when the speaker is discussing Biblical Greek. So I had imagined a boring yet erudite scholar who spent his life in front of stacks of books on Greek grammar and stacks of manuscripts. I was wrong. I am reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce, and in that biography he gives the following description of Granville Sharp:

But the precise concatenation of events that launched Wilberforce in his historical quest is as impossible to sort out as whether the proverbial chicken can be said to have laid the proverbial egg or to have been hatched from it. But we know of one interesting character who played a key part. His name was Granville Sharp and he was unquestionably one of the foremost chickens— or eggs— involved. He was also something of a nut.

There is no use beating around the bush: Granville Sharp really was quite nutty. But he was one of those nuts who was so nutty that in talking with him he could make you wonder if it was in fact you who were the nut and not he. Which is to say, perhaps he wasn’t quite so very nutty after all.

Granville Sharp was a renowned musician in the mid-eighteenth century. There will be no jokes about his marrying a Miss Flat, nor about their having seven children named Doey, Ray, Mimi, and so on. Sharp’s entire family were musicians, and most of them lived inside a large barge that was towed all over England’s waterways. The Sharps would fortnightly perform their music for royals and other privileged persons whilst wearing tricorn hats and buckled shoes and were exceedingly famous in their day. There is a well-known painting in the National Gallery of all sixteen of them posed atop their barge. They were rather a talented group. Granville’s brother, who played with them, also held the title of Official Surgeon to the King. Still, Granville stood out among them, being indefatigably brilliant and possessed of a tenacious streak both wider and longer than the Thames, upon which the family’s barge sometimes traveled.

While still a young man, Sharp, a devout Christian, had been accused by a Unitarian of believing in the Trinity because he didn’t know the original language of the New Testament. Quicker than you could say, “It’s Greek to me,” Sharp taught himself Greek, refuted the linguistically and theologically confused Unitarian, and then wrote a definitive pamphlet, titled “Remarks on the Use of the Definitive Article in the Greek Text of the New Testament,” in which he corrected some long-standing translation errors in the Bibles of the period (they’ve been corrected ever since). Sharp was similarly challenged on the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and before you could shout, “L’chaim!” he had conquered a second ancient tongue in no time flat and was likely rolling up his sleeves to subdue the wily cuneiform lingo of the Babylonians when history interrupted in 1765.

That was the year when Sharp’s tenacity and Christianity would converge once more, this time in a matter not of linguistics but of law. What precipitated this convergence was not a mistaken Unitarian but a bloodied African who staggered one day that year toward Sharp on a London street after having been pistol-whipped until the pistol broke apart; the young man was nearly blinded and had lost the use of his legs. Sharp immediately brought him to his brother, the king’s surgeon. They got him admitted to a hospital, where he spent four months recovering, and afterward they found him a job. The man’s name was Jonathan Strong. He was about seventeen years old and had belonged to a Barbados lawyer named Lisle, who had brought him to London from the Caribbean. But two years later Lisle was suddenly surprised to see his miraculously resurrected— and again quite valuable— former property, and he decided now would be an excellent time to cash in his long-lost chips, happily rediscovered. Lisle reckoned that Strong would bring about £ 30, and while he busied himself finding a buyer, he had Strong kidnapped by two men and brought to jail, where he would be held until Lisle could return. But somehow Strong got word to Sharp, and Sharp immediately went to the Lord Mayor, who agreed that Strong should indeed be set free. Lisle was none too pleased, but perceiving Sharp’s inexhaustible reserves of tenacity— the piercing eyes, aquiline nose, and sunken cheeks fairly shouted as much— Lisle decided to back off. Strong was freed.

But this episode had engaged Sharp’s curiosity, and he now began a study of English law. What he found on the subject of slavery disturbed him. It seemed that sometime during the reign of William and Mary a Justice Holt had wisely ruled that “one may be a villeyn in England, but not a slave.” So indeed, for a time, slavery was forbidden on English shores. But Holt’s ruling was overturned just a few years later, in 1729, and ever since then it had been legal to keep slaves in England. Sharp had studied only one book of law before this episode, but that one book was the Bible, which the doughty genius believed to be both the infallible Word of God and the urtext of all English law. He knew that all English law sprang from this just and noble soil, and any rulings that said slaves could be owned in England were simply mistaken and must needs be weeded out of that soil with all alacrity. Sharp even consulted the venerable William Blackstone on this subject (not the book but the author himself), weighed the great authority’s opinion on the legal balance, and— authority or no— found him wanting. And so Sharp himself would deal with these erroneous rulings as he had dealt with those pesky mistranslated Greek verbs: he’d find them, pull them up by their roots, and toss them behind him, along with the other jetsam of errata, in his frothy, churning wake.”

Metaxas, Eric (2009-10-13). Amazing Grace (Kindle Locations 1708-1748). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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