Yesterday’s Observer newspaper (January 1st) reported on a new orchestral piece which celebrates the hymn Amazing Grace.
The Hymn by former slave trader, John Newton, was heard first of all during a service in Olney Church, Buckinghamshire on New Year’s Day, 1873, 250 years ago. It’s author, John Newton, included it in a sermon he preached that day.
It was to become an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and of those working for social justice, equality and black people, including former President Barak Obama. It is also a firm favourite of many Christians.
When John Newton wrote it, it was initially a prayer of penitence by a former slave trader who expressed gratitude to God for turning him away from the evil he had participated in and led him to embrace a very different life.
In the hymn, Newton recognised the power of God’s grace – the very essence of His love – to claim a soul of His own making but who had gone astray.
John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, London. Both parents influenced the course of his life; his father was a master mariner, whilst his mother, who died when he was six, introduced him to dissenting Christianity.
He became a sailor in his early teens and became involved in the lucrative and profitable slave trade. He was part of the ignominious chapter in history when millions of Africans were kidnapped and shipped in the most appalling conditions to the New World colonies of the North and South Americas
The story of Amazing Grace began on one such slave transportation. Newton’s ship was overcome by a terrifying storm which raged and threatened the lives of the sailors (not to mention the slaves).
As so often, when in grave danger, there was a turn to prayer. The storm abated and Newton was saved. But he was saved in a deeper and more significant way and shortly after he gave up the sea for a shore job in Liverpool. It was then that he sensed the action of grace claiming him. He found God pulling at his heart springs.
From this he began to study for the ministry of the Church and eventually he was ordained. He became curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire. There he wrote the hymn Amazing Grace as he reflected on his former life and on his miraculous salvation. He came to a deep realisation that only by God’s grace are we truly saved.
What happened to Newton was that he was touched by God’s love – and as with so many in the Christian story, to use the words of John Wesley, his heart was warmed.
Together with another hymn-writer, William Cowper, he wrote and compiled the Olney Hymns which became an influential evangelistic tool in the work of claiming souls for God.
Newton remained Minister at Olney until 1780. He then became rector of St Mary Woolnoth, London.
His powerful preaching and growing reputation drew large congregations.
Here too, his journey of faith brought him into contact with William Wilberforce who in 1785 came to him for advice. Wilberforce was going through a crisis of faith and Newton urged him to use his political skills and opportunities to do God’s work. Taking this advice, Wilberforce began the long and challenging campaign for the abolition of slavery.
In 1788, Newton wrote a pamphlet, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, which revealed his own past as a slave trader and condemned the trade, expressing his own repentance for his part in it.
As the campaign for abolition gathered momentum, Newton became more active in it. He worked with Wilberforce in his Parliamentary struggle against those who saw abolition as a threat to the economy and who had no care for the abhorrent conditions in which the slaves were transported.
Before a parliamentary select committee Newton argued that money gained from slave trading was blood money.
Newton’s part in the abolition of slavery Act is sometimes underestimated but without his encouragement of William Wilberforce it might never have happened. The long journey towards today’s Black Lives Matter Movement might have never begun.
Newton died in 1807, shortly after the Abolition Act passed into law. He was buried first in the crypt of St Mary Woolnoth but later disruption in the building of the London Underground led to his body being reinterred in Olney.
He is remembered by a plaque at St Mary Woolnoth which records something of his journey of grace.
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 and pardoned and appointed to preach the faith He had long laboured to destroy.
Amazing Grace had worked a mighty work in him and the hymn is his true legacy. It has brought knowledge of God’s action of love and salvation to many. It is both a comfort and an assurance that God’s care and a source of hope.
Rommi Smith, the poet who is writing the libretto for music composed by Roderick Williams, which draws inspiration from the hymn and celebrates it says this:
“Those who look to their faith for redemption saw hope in Newton’s later life, when he gave testimony against slavery in London and became friendly with the abolitionist William Wilberforce …
For so many people the song seems to represent both comfort and hope at uncertain moments. “It is a song that holds you steadfast,” concluded Smith. “It is passionate and reassuring at the same time. And we all need reassurance and an answer to the question, ‘Am I on the right path? “
Newton, himself wrote his own epitaph when he said:
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”
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.
The Lord has promised good to me
his word my hope secures
he will my shield and portion be
as long as life endures.
Yes, when this heart and flesh shall fail
and mortal life shall cease
I shall possess within the veil
a life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been there a thousand years
bright shining as the sun
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we first begun.
(John Newton 1725-1807)