John Newton was a press-ganged sailor, a slave, a slave-ship captain, an Anglican priest, an abolitionist, and the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Back in the post on Gilligan’s Grace I threatened to write more about the surprising origin of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.” Well, here we are.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,“Amazing Grace”
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Why was the author a wretch? Where was he lost? What dangers, toils, and snares befell him? The truth of the matter is even stranger than you would think.
John Newton was a sailor from a young age. He first went to sea with his father when he was just eleven years old. In 1743, when he was eighteen years old, he was press-ganged into the English Royal Navy to serve aboard a newly built ship of the line. Apparently he tried to desert (to get back home to his lady love, the young romantic) so he was transferred to a slave ship bound for West Africa. And he was so unpopular with the crew of that ship that he was dropped off in Sierra Leone and became enslaved himself on a plantation.
Three years later, Newton was rescued by a friend of his father’s. On the way back to England his ship was caught in a life-threatening storm; Newton converted to sincere Christianity on the spot. Despite this religious awakening, which saw him swear off most sailors’ vices, he went back to work in the Transatlantic slave trade for another six years, eventually captaining a couple of slave ships himself.
By 1764 Newton was back in England, now as an ordained Anglican priest. It was during this time that he fell in with the poet William Cowper, and in 1779 the two published a book of evangelical songs called the Olney Hymns. One of those hymns was called “1 Chronicles 17:16–17, Faith’s Review and Expectation,” and it began with the immortal words “Amazing grace.”
Newton poured his tumultuous life into a hymn of repentance and redemption. But he didn’t go properly public with his change of heart until 1788, when he sent a pamphlet decrying slavery to every MP in parliament:
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.Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade
Britain officially abolished the international slave trade in March 1807, and Newton died nine months later.
(End note: British slavery did not end in practice until decades later, and even then the indenture system perpetuated many of the same injustices for decades more. But that’s a post for another time.)