For all new generations of people who have never been exposed to “Amazing Grace,” Steve Turner’s “Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song” presents revelatory discovery of the birth of the hymn and its dissemination.
For many of us, the story is familiar as is the song: We have all heard it sung or performed or have sung it ourselves so many times that it seems almost a cliche. Turner elevates the hymn from the ordinary to the extraordinary when he reveals the vicissitudes of the spiritually tortured writer of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, an English sailor who was converted to the ministry.
Early life and influences
Born on July 24, 1725, in Wapping, London, near the River Thames, Newton grew up among the shipping industry, seafaring men like his father, and tradesmen who supplied ships and sailors. With his father away at sea, Newton’s early religious exposure came from his mother Elizabeth, who relied on the minister Isaac Watts and his “Divine Songs in Easy Language for the Use of Children” (1715). In addition to this work, Watts wrote “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” (1707), now seen as the foundation of English hymnody with favorites like “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
After his mother died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1732 when Newton was only 7, the Catlett family cared for him. He met Mary Catlett who remained a guiding influence and whom he later married. After his father’s remarriage, Newton attended boarding schools until at age 11, he was installed on his father’s ship where he worked for two years.
Myths about John Newton
Turner dispels many of the myths about Newton and his sudden conversion to Christianity that heightened his awareness of the inhumanity inherent in the slave trade. Turner says that Newton’s conversion to faith in God and Christ preceded his realization of the wrongs in the transportation and sale of slaves: “Like almost everyone of his generation [Newton] saw nothing inherently wrong with slavery. ... Some Christians argued passionately that slavery was God’s way of rescuing Africans from their barbaric practices and heathen beliefs and introducing them to Christianity.” On board the “Brownlea” in July 1748, sailing for Charleston, S.C., with a load of 218 slaves, Newton saw 60 slaves die — some killed in a mutiny and others from mistreatment.
After his father’s death from drowning as a result of a cramp, Newton captained his own ship, the “Duke of Argyle,” which gathered 174 slaves during seven months in 1750 and 1751. Newton’s chief motive was money: Married at last to Mary, his share of the profits gave him three times his salary for October-May.
Newton and slavery
The contrast between Newton’s new-found piety and the conditions of the slaves he transported defies understanding. Turner describes the lower deck where the slaves were housed as being 5 feet in height. The slaves, shackled in pairs, lay side by side in two tiers, in “cramped, stifling darkness.” Even the crew could not abide the vomit, urine, and excrement that emanated from the lower deck. These 18th century Englishmen were accustomed to physical cruelty as public whippings, beatings, and executions were the usual practice. Turner says Newton reconciled his being a slave trader with these words: “I considered it as the line of life which God, in his providence, had allotted me and as a cross which I ought to bear with patience and thankfulness till he should be pleased to deliver me from it.” He felt his only obligation was to treat slaves humanely. He reduced the numbers of slaves he transported, thus alleviating the chance of disease, and he punished sailors who violated the female slaves. On his third voyage, he reported not a single slave death.
The call to ministry
In August 1753, at home, ready to make another yearlong voyage, Newton suffered a seizure, most probably from a ruptured blood vessel in his brain. Grounded after nearly 20 years of the seafaring life, Newton was glad of a job as a tide surveyor in the Custom House in Liverpool. The job gave him stability and respectability as he ascertained that newly arrived ships paid duty fees on goods and that smuggled goods were discovered.
Meanwhile, as Newton continued his religious journey, he told his story of gradual conversion to faith and began to consider a call to Christian ministry. One barrier was the lack of a university education, but after writing a series of letters about his conversion and a “spiritual autobiography,” Newton so impressed Lord Dartmouth, an important landowner of property in the village of Olney, that Dartmouth made Newton curate-in-charge. He became a deacon in April 1764, then was ordained a priest for the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Olney.
Friendship with William Cowper (Cooper)
Though he had written the occasional hymn early in his ministry, Newton began writing hymns in earnest after he met the English Romantic poet and hymn maker, William Cowper. Newton aimed to direct his own hymn-writing to the needs of his working-class parishioners — simple language and ease of melody made the hymns he composed accessible and relevant to the sermons he intended to preach. Because of the relevance of the hymn lyrics to Bible verse, when Newton planned to preach based on First Corinthians 17:16-17, the hymn “Amazing Grace” probably grew from this source in December 1772.
London and abolition
With the publication of his “Olney Hymns” and his increasing popularity, Newton left Olney and moved to London where he felt he could have a larger influence as priest at St. Mary Woolnoth. He joined others in a movement to abolish slavery, publishing a 10,000-word essay, “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade.” Eventually, on March 2, 1807, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery became law, a triumph for Newton before death took him the following December. The epitaph he wrote calls him an “Infidel” but one restored by Christ’s mercy.
Knowing this life reflected in “Amazing Grace” enriches and restores us as well.
Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to email@example.com.