Written as the prelude to a sermon he delivered from the pulpit of his Church on 1 January 1773, and first published six years later, John Newton’s Amazing Grace is arguably the most instantly recognisable and popular hymn in the English language that was to become emblematic of the anti-slavery movement. Yet for much of his life its author not only never questioned its morality but prospered as a result of its being.
John Henry Newton was born in Wapping, south-east London on 24 July 1725, the son of a Master Mariner and he was to have only two years formal schooling before at the age of eleven he was sent to work on his father’s ship.
It had been intended that he should become an Overseer on the Sugar Plantations of the West Indies but the sea had got into his blood and he was to continue to serve on a number of merchant ships until in 1743 whilst on shore leave in Rotherhithe he was forcibly taken and press-ganged into service with the Royal Navy.
He did not take kindly to enforced life in the service of His Majesty and the disgruntled Newton soon earned a reputation for his coarse language, hard drinking, and insubordination which was to lead to him being severely punished on a number of occasions including being stripped to the waist and flogged in front of the entire crew.
Not long after this humiliation whilst in port in Harwich he requested to be transferred to the slave ship Pegasus which glad to be rid of him was duly granted.
He was to prove such a troublesome character however, that following a bizarre set of circumstances his crew mates were to abandon him into the care of a slave owning African Princess where much like her other slaves he was to be appallingly treated not that his personal experience of servitude caused him to re-assess his attitudes towards slavery sharing as he did the common held belief in the inferiority of the coloured races.
He was rescued from captivity in 1748, but on 10 March whilst on the journey home in the slave ship Greyhound he almost lost his life when it encountered a violent storm just off the coast of Ireland.
His near-death experience was to witness in him a Damascean Conversion to Evangelical Christianity, even if not an immediate and complete one.
He was to give up alcohol and gambling but continued to serve on slave ships until in 1755 a serious illness forced him to retire from the sea, but even now whilst working as a tax collector in Liverpool he continued to invest his savings in the slave trade.
But since his religious conversion however, he had become a popular lay preacher and in 1757, applied to be ordained into the Church of England but such was his reputation as a vulgar and violent tempered man that his application was declined.
In 1764 he was persuaded to try again but even now it was only through the intervention of a well-connected friend that saw him ordained into Holy Orders. The same year of his ordination he became Curate in the village of Olney in Buckinghamshire.
He was to prove a hard working and popular priest able to emphasise with the poor having shared many of their hardships and speaking their language.
Despite having written Amazing Grace, the signature hymn of the abolitionist movement fifteen years earlier it wasn’t until 1788, that under pressure from his friend William Wilberforce he at last broke his silence on the issue.
In support of Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade (though not slavery itself) he composed a strongly worded pamphlet in which he described in detail the horrors endured by slaves on the long trans-Atlantic voyage and the harsh treatment meted out to them.
As a man who had made his fortune from the slave trade and had not just witnessed it first-hand but had been an active protagonist in the torments of human bondage his condemnation of it carried extra weight, and Wilberforce made sure that a copy of his pamphlet was distributed to every Member of Parliament and the House of Lords.
Newton was immediately accused of hypocrisy by those who opposed abolition but it was an accusation that he’d already had the foresight to address in the pamphlet.
It was he said a confession which comes too late:
“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.”
Newton’s intervention was to prove of great benefit to William Wilberforce but the campaign to abolish the slave trade was to last many years and it wasn’t until 1807 that the Slave Act abolishing it within the territories under the jurisdiction of the British Empire was finally passed.
But it was at least a law passed with sincerity and it was to be rigorously enforced.
John Newton lived just long enough to see the slave trade abolished dying on 21 December 1807, aged 83.
His legacy as a man who had seen the light as reflected in Amazing Grace is perhaps the greatest and most enduring hymn to the joy of redemption and salvation.
In 1835 the American lay-Baptist preacher William Walker put the words of Amazing Grace to the tune of New Britain the origins of which remain obscure, and it is in this form that we know and recognise it today.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T’was 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.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall profess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.