famous 'Amazing Grace' is a song about salvation.
written by a former slave trader, many decades after he had left slave trading
and seafaring behind and had become a minister of God.
Newton (1725-1807) first worked as a
slave buyer in Africa and later moved on to a position of captain
on slave ships.
He continued to
make his living in
the slave trade after becoming
a Christian at the age
of 23 in 1748. A
violent storm at sea brought about his commitment
to Christianity, but it was escaping with his own life that inspired him to get
religion, not guilt over enslaving others. Although this event is often pointed
to as "the" conversion, it really was only the first of many such
pacts with the Almighty struck by Newton, each one brought about by his close
shaves with death.
quit the sea and the slave trade in 1754 or 1755. He did not free any of his
merchandise on that 1748 trip, or on any others. Though he might have become a
Christian, he did not yet allow it to interfere with his making a living.
1754 or 1755, he became a Tides Surveyor in Liverpool (a form of Customs Officer
charged with searching for contraband and paid with half the swag taken from
others). It was at this point Newton first began to express an interest in the
ministry, but at the time was unable to decide between the Methodist and
Anglican faiths. He was ultimately ordained a priest in the Church of England in
most likely composed 'Amazing Grace' in 1772, athough there is no clear
agreement on the date. According to one biographer, the hymn was penned along
with a great many others during an informal hymn-writing competition he was
having with William Cowper, another noted hymn writer. If so, that casts doubt
upon this particular composition's being solely an invigorating outpouring of
wonder over the Lord's mercy — there are, after all, only so many themes that
can be expounded upon in a hymn, and personal salvation is one of them.
began to express regrets about his part in the slave trade only in 1780,
thirty-two years after his conversion, and eight years after he wrote 'Amazing
Grace.' In 1785 he began to fight against slavery by speaking out against it,
and he continued to do so until his death in 1807.
is a true story of a former slave trader who did compose one of the most
moving hymns of our times. But Newton's
storm-driven adoption of Christianity didn't change him
all that much immediately. He continued to make his living from the slave trade
for many years afterwards and only left the trade when his wife insisted upon
their living a settled life in England.
did eventually grow into his conversion, so that by the end of his days he
actually was the godly man, one would expect to have penned 'Amazing Grace.' But
it was a slow process made over the passage of decades, not something that
happened with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning. We can say that
Newton's writing of the 'Amazing Grace' is a manifestation of God's
unending patience with him.
Newton's story gives us all hope that even the greatest of sinners can ultimately
and meaningfully repent, and even the most half-hearted of conversions can over
time work its magic.
epitaph on John Newton's monument, written by Newton himself, is very characteristic: “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
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 that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun.
If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and
pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear
from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.