Friday, July 24, is the 290th birthday of John Newton – slave ship captain, Church of England priest, noted abolitionist and the author of the popular Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
By Robert Mann
In early July, not long after President Obama sang the first stanza of “Amazing Grace” at the end of his moving eulogy of the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, I found myself standing before a 14th century Church of England chapel in the town of Olney, about 60 miles north of London.
The ancient building was empty, but I was happy to discover one of its thick wooden doors slightly ajar. I turned the worn iron latch and stepped tentatively into the sanctuary, which rests under a 185-foot stone spire, visible from every corner of the bustling village.
The church of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in the picturesque county of Buckinghamshire is the sacred space where the words to Christendom’s most popular hymn were first spoken. It sits only a block from the former vicarage where John Newton, the church’s rector in 1773, composed the hymn – “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)” – that still moves and inspires Christians everywhere 242 years later.
As I roamed the nave and wandered into the chancel, surrounded by magnificent stained glass windows, the hymn’s words rang in my head. I had trekked to Olney to learn more about the life of the man who wrote “Amazing Grace” and whose remarkable personal story makes his hymn all the more compelling and evocative.
By the time Newton penned “Amazing Grace” as a meditation to accompany his 1773 New Year’s Day sermon, his story was well known to his parishioners. Born in London in 1725, he began his years at sea on his father’s ship, at age 11. Eventually, his became a sailor’s life of debauchery bred with misery. “I don’t believe that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer as myself,” Newton confessed in a memoir. “Not content with common profanities and cursing, I daily invented new ones so that I was often strongly rebuked by the captain.”
Newton’s belligerent defiance of authority eventually got him sold into virtual slavery in Sierra Leone. At the mercy of an African duchess engaged in the salve trade, Newton nearly starved to death and, after falling seriously ill, was essentially left for dead. His flight from Africa – like so many other escapes from death, “dangers, toils and snares” – eventually persuaded Newton that God was preserving him for a greater purpose.
“I was so blind and stupid at the time,” Newton wrote of his fortuitous rescue by a friend of his father, “that I gave no thought to my good fortune nor did I seek some meaning in what had happened.” His spiritual awakening occurred during a violent Atlantic storm that almost sank his ship as it headed for England in March 1748.
Later, Newton became a ship’s captain and commanded slave vessels that plied the West African coast, purchasing Africans for delivery to the West Indies and ultimately to the American colonies. He gave up sailing in 1754, six years after his religious conversion – but not because he opposed slavery. He then saw no wrong in the institution. Newton renounced sailing, instead, because he missed his wife (voyages lasted more than a year) and he longed for a simpler, domestic existence.
(Much later – inspiring and assisting his young friend William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament – Newton would become a renowned abolitionist. In 1788, he published his famous and influential pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, in which he described the horrors of his former occupation.)
It was not long after he quit the sea that Newton heard God calling him into the ordained ministry. Well-read and fluent in Latin, he had no formal religious education. Worse, for one who wished to be Anglican priest, he was known to associate with Methodists, Baptists and dissenters (those who refused membership in the Church of England). For seven years, Newton unsuccessfully labored to persuade the church to ordain him. Finally, in 1764, under the patronage of the Earl of Dartmouth, he obtained his ordination and the curacy of the church in the working-class, lace-making village of Olney.
Newton’s charisma, amiability, evangelistic fervor and the way his shared stories of his past life with parishioners soon filled his chapel to overflowing. He served as rector in Olney for almost 16 years, before moving into the heart of London in 1779, where he led the parish of St. Mary Woolnoth (near the Bank of England) until his death in 1807, just nine months after Parliament abolished slavery. Throughout his long and productive life, Newton never stopped marveling at his good fortune and the wonders that grace had performed in his life. Like St. Paul, Newton wrote, he had been “an eminent sinner but proved himself to be an eminent Christian. He had been forgiven much and he loved much.”
That was the remarkable man whose home, church and environment I had come see. As profound as it was to stand in Newton’s former sanctuary, I was unprepared for the moving experience of standing before the man’s tomb. The granite vault abuts an old stone wall. There is barely enough room for an adult to stand between the tomb and the wall.
A visitor might never think to look around the back and note the inscription that Newton composed and ordered carved on the stone: “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”
Back in London that night, I finally found time to listen to Obama’s stirring eulogy of Rev. Pinckney. I was struck by how much of Newton’s hymn had influenced Obama’s remarks. “This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace,” Obama said, referring to the murders of Pinckney and eight others in the basement of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Obama continued:
The grace of the families who lost loved ones; the grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons; the grace described in one of my favorite hymns, the one we all know — Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God. As manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.
Grace — as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find out best selves.
We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and shortsightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
Obama then spoke passionately about the Confederate flag and his desire to see it disappear from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds. “It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds,” he said. “It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.” Obama also spoke of racism, voting rights abuses and – most passionately – about the scourge of gun violence.
And, then, he returned to grace.
“And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions, ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace,” Obama said. “We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.”
Obama suggested Americans could best honor that grace, not by relying only on “symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change,” but rather by engaging in a serious, respectful dialogue about race and history. He continued, turning again to grace: “If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.”
Then, surprising everyone, Obama began to sing the hymn – and the congregation joined him. It was a profound and moving peroration to a historic speech that I suspect will be long remembered for its eloquence and power.
A few days later, I picked up my copy of Newton’s brief memoir. He had written it while he served as “surveyor of tides” in Liverpool, years before his appointment as rector in Olney. Having read other books about Newton, I knew his story well – or, so I thought.
After a few chapters, I came across an important fact about Newton I had overlooked or forgotten. It stunned me and persuaded me that Obama was indeed correct in observing in his Charleston eulogy, “God works in mysterious ways” (a phrase, coincidently, coined by Newton’s best friend and Olney neighbor, the renowned poet William Cowper).
The overlooked, striking fact of Newton’s life was this: In 1749, Newton had served as first mate on a slave ship – the Brownlow – that had delivered 156 African slaves to Charleston (62 souls had perished during the voyage). While Newton was not known to be a cruel slaver (he did not load his ships to overflowing like less-humane captains), he did not regard his cargo as fully human. He was still many years away from having his eyes opened to the immorality of slavery.
I have long marveled at the mystical irony of the fact that every Sunday, in churches across the United States, there are likely many descendants of slaves brought to our shores in chains by John Newton. “By the time of emancipation,” historian Steve Turner wrote a 2002 book about Newton and his famous hymn, “there would have been more than fourteen thousand direct descendants of the slaves brought to Charleston on the Brownlow and around forty thousand descendants of those brought to the Caribbean on the two ships that Newton commanded.” (Many years later, in the antebellum South, “Amazing Grace” would become a favorite hymn of slaves who knew nothing of the author’s slave-trading history.) On many a Sunday morning, those black worshipers unknowingly sing a beautiful, powerful hymn written by a man who helped enslave one or more of their ancestors.
Another astonishing possibility, however, had not occurred to me until I read Newton’s memoir: some members of Pinckney’s Charleston congregation might be the descendants of people who arrived in that town as slaves on Newton’s ship in 1749 – and who, 266 years later, would be comforted in their grief by a black president who sang inspired words of grace written by that repentant slave ship captain.
Amazing grace, indeed.