[John Newton] (Mezzotint by Leney after Russell, n.d.). Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Arguably the best-known Christian hymn is "Amazing Grace." Its text, a poem penned in 1772 by John Newton, describes the joy and peace of a soul uplifted from despair to salvation through the gift of grace. Newton's words are also a vivid autobiographical commentary on how he was spared from both physical and spiritual ruin. It relates the happy ending of the tale of a defiant man who manages again and again to escape danger, disease, abuse, and death, only to revert to "struggles between sin and conscience." [ 1 ]
Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, a London suburb that thrived on shipping and sea trade. His father, a merchant ship captain, was often away on sea voyages that typically lasted two to three years. During one of these absences, Newton's mother succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving him in the temporary care of her friends, the Catlett family in Kent. His father remarried and Newton was placed in boarding school. He stayed in close contact with the Catletts, however, primarily because of their daughter, Mary, whom he eventually wed. Mary was the cornerstone of Newton's existence. No matter what befell him, his goal always was to return to her.
In spite of the powerful message of "Amazing Grace," Newton's religious beliefs initially lacked conviction. Raised far afield of the prevailing Anglican traditions, Newton's youth was marked by religious confusion and, as he later confirmed, a lack of moral self-control and discipline. His father was educated as a Catholic by Jesuits in Spain and his mother was a so-called Nonconformist Christian who rejected the liturgy-based worship of the Church of England.
Nevertheless, Newton's life, rife with the "dangers, toils and snares" at which his text hints, repeatedly brought him face-to-face with the notion that he had been miraculously spared. On one occasion, he was thrown from a horse, narrowly missing impalement on a row of sharp stakes. Another time, he arrived too late to board a tender that was carrying his companions to tour a warship; as he watched from the shore, the vessel overturned, drowning all its passengers. Years later, on a hunting expedition in Africa on a moonless night, he and his companions got lost in a swamp. Just when they had resigned themselves to death, the moon appeared and they were able to return to safety. Such near-death were commonplace in Newton's life.
Yet no matter how many times he was rescued, Newton relapsed into his old habits, continuing to defy his religious destiny and attempting to dissuade others from their beliefs. Of all of the sins to which he later confessed, his habit of chipping away at the faith of others remained heaviest on his heart.
In 1744 Newton was press-ganged--taken by force into service in the Royal Navy. He was disgraced, relieved of his post, and traded for another man from a passing merchant ship, a slave vessel.
Beginning his career in slave trading, Newton soon became tempted by its profits. Merchants believed that trafficking in human trade was justified since slavery was permitted in the Bible as long as slaves were treated with dignity and kindness. [ 2 ] That Newton engaged in the slave trade in such a manner was demonstrated by the willingness of slaves to secretly carry his letters to port to send to Mary.
Despite a promising start with a slaver off the coast of Sierra Leone, Newton once again found himself in tough straits. Felled by malaria, he was at the mercy of the slaver's native mistress, whose abuse reduced him to the condition of the "wretch" he later described in "Amazing Grace." He recovered, however, but was soon to face another trial during which he was strengthened and inspired by Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ.
Newton was aboard ship one night when a violent storm broke out. Moments after he left the deck, the crewman who had taken his place was swept overboard. Although he manned the vessel for the remainder of the tempest, he later commented that, throughout the tumult, he realized his helplessness and concluded that only the grace of God could save him. Prodded by what he had read in Kempis, Newton took the first--albeit small--step toward accepting religion. In the words of his hymn, this incident marked "the hour I first believed."
Upon his safe return home in the late 1740s, Newton immediately wrote to the Catlett family to plead his case for Mary's hand, although he could offer her no financial security. When Mary herself replied that she would consider his suit, he returned to slaving to better his fortunes, this time on a ship full of slaves bound across the Atlantic to Charleston, South Carolina.
Newton wed Mary Cartlett in 1750. A changed man, he accepted the helm of a ship bound for Africa. This time, he encouraged the sailors under his charge to prayer rather than taunt them for their beliefs. He also began to ensure that every member of his crew treated their human cargo with gentleness and concern. However, it would be another 40 years until Newton openly challenged the trafficking of slaves.
Some three years after his marriage, Newton suffered a stroke that prevented him from returning to sea; in time, he interpreted this as another step in his spiritual voyage. He assumed a post in the Customs Office in the port of Liverpool and began to explore Christianity more fully. As Newton attempted to experience all the various expressions of Christianity, it became clear that he was being called to the ministry.
Since Newton lacked a university degree, he could not be ordained through normal channels. However, the landlord of the parish at Olney was so impressed with the letters Newton had written about his conversion that he offered the church to Newton; he was ordained in June 1764.
In Olney, the new curate met the poet William Cowper, also a newly-born Christian. Their friendship led to a spiritual collaboration that completed the inspiration for "Amazing Grace," the poem Newton most likely penned around Christmas of 1772. Some 60 years later in America, the text was set to the hymn tune, "New Britain," to which it has been sung ever since.
The Former Slaver against Slavery
Even though many of England's great shipping cities prospered from the slave trade, social critics began to speak out against the practice by the mid-18th century. By the 1780s, the powerful voice of William Wilberforce (pictured to the right) was added to this chorus.
Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, was the nephew of one of Newton's London friends. Inspired by the former slave trader, and paralleling Newton's own conversion, Wilberforce began to question his role in life. Although Newton, then a lowly Olney curate, was convinced that Wilberforce was just another wealthy politician, he persuaded him to crusade for change and use his station in life and his powerful friends (including Prime Minister Pitt) to seek reform. One of the chief topics for such advocacy was abolition. In fact, Wilberforce wrote in his journal on October 28, 1787, that one of the two goals that had been set before him was "the suppression of the Slave Trade."
Newton joined in the fight for the abolition of slavery by publishing the essay "Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade." Because Christians still felt that slavery was justified in the Bible, Newton and Wilberforce wisely avoided building their protests on a religious platform. Instead, they condemned the practice as an inhumane treatment of their fellow men and women. Newton, speaking strongly from his own experiences, also proposed that the captors were in turn brutalized by their callous treatment of others and cited offences including torture, rape, and murder. Newton's friend, the poet William Cowper, joined their fight by writing pro-abolition poems and ballads.
In 1789 Wilberforce introduced a "Bill for the Abolition of Slavery" in Parliament. The bill faced opposition in both Houses, but the forces against enactment became weaker each time it came up for a vote. The bill finally was passed by the House of Commons in 1804 and by the House of Lords in 1807 after which King George III declared it law.
There is no direct link between "Amazing Grace" and the abolition of slavery in Britain. Nonetheless, the hymn was written by a man who was moved to speak out against something from which he had once profited. In an essay Newton said: "I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me . . . that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." Thus, it seems fitting that his hymn has become for so many--including those fighting for Civil Rights--an anthem against all forms of social injustice.
1. Information for this essay was drawn in great part from Steve Turner's book "Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song" (New York: HarperCollins, 2002). We are grateful to the author for allowing us to quote his book liberally. [back to text]
2. As Turner notes, the Quakers and Anabaptists were the only Christians to speak out against slavery (p. 50). [back to text]