Last month, Americans heard the strains of “Amazing Grace” as President Obama, eulogizing the victims of the Emmanuel AME Church shooting, broke into the timeless first verse. It’s amazing, but more so when you learn more about the hymn’s author, John Newton.
“Amazing Grace” is a timeless hymn. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice played it on the piano on July 4th, alongside violinist Jenny Oaks, to honor American war veterans. The hymn’s author, John Newton, is now the subject of a musical. But less known is all that led to Newton, a slave trader for many years, to publish “Amazing Grace.”
In 1748, a violent storm battered Newton’s slave vessel off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland. He called out to God for mercy, embracing the Christian faith. As his boat was being repaired, Newton wrote the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” Once repairs were complete, however, Newton set sail, continuing his career as a slave trader.
According to Adam Hochschild, “During the better part of a decade in the slave trade, John Newton seems never to have heard God say a word to him against slavery.”1 While his human cargo was perishing 30 feet below his feet, Newton was penning praise to God. After he left the slave trade, “during which time he preached thousands of sermons, published half a dozen books, and wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ and 279 other hymns, John Newton said not a word in public against slavery.” His mind was focused on changing not the social order of his world but its spiritual life”—largely because of “the influence of the Evangelical movement.”
The Evangelical movement, for all its virtues, focused more on an individual’s inner “spiritual” life than the broader society of the day. George Whitefield, the most influential Evangelical minister of his day—Newton heard him preach—owned more than 50 Georgia slaves and believed firmly that “hot countries cannot be cultivated without Negroes.” It was pietism that ignored public responsibilities. Amazing.
Newton’s turning point was meeting the Clapham activists, led by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce experienced his “great change” in 1785. That same year, in June, Thomas Clarkson sat down by the side of the road at Wades Mill, experiencing the pangs of conscience. He had just won an award for writing a paper on the evils of the slave trade. Until that instant, Clarkson had understood slavery merely as a concept. Now he felt the crushing weight of conscience. He was culpable. The slave trade had to be abolished.
Within two years, Clarkson pulled Wilberforce in along with several dozen of other colleagues in an effort to abolish the English Slave Trade. Their modus operandi, as noted by Sir James Mackintosh, was to “evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life.” Newton, retired from the slave trade for nearly 34 years, was slowly drawn in. He began to feel the pangs of conscience.
A year later, in 1778, Newton published a forceful pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. He begins with a “confession, which…comes too late… a humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” In 1779, “Amazing Grace” was published.
“Amazing Grace” is a hymn about grace, but it’s also a haunting reminder about how easy it is for us to take undue liberties with grace and deceive ourselves—continuing in our sin. The corrective is conscience, as Hochschild notes. Newton’s shuddering “is testimony to the way a strong social movement can awaken a conscience,” he writes, “—even in a clergyman, whose very business is the awakening of consciences.”
In his apostolic ministry, Paul targeted human conscience (II Cor. 4:2). So did the Clapham activists. William Wilberforce called it obedience to the dictates of conscience. When Thomas Clarkson died on September 26, 1846, the poet Samuel Coleridge gave this fitting tribute: “He, if ever a human being did, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice.” It’s wonderful that we continue to hear the strains of “Amazing Grace,” but it ought to also remind us of how human conscience is a powerful corrective.
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1 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 2.