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John Newton was a slave ship captain

Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of “Amazing Grace” is intertwined with the story of transatlantic slave trade. In fact, the hymnwriter’s life tells us not only about grace, but about justice.

While his mother hoped that he would join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton (1725-1807) renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a planation in Sierra Leone. He was eventually freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain, “if this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton famously rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and lead several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans.

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends associated with the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by celery. Inspired by the texts of Isaac Watts (“O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (“Christ the Lord is Rise Today”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, Amazing Grace was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, called NEW BRITAIN, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and books—that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God—it was not until 30 years later (in 1788) that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “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 writes of “the hour I first believed” in “Amazing Grace”, but he also viewed faith as a more gradual experience: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things (c.f. any non-divine Bible character). However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact we can indifferent or complacent in matters of injustice and oppression. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much, much later. He lived long enough to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which finally ended the selling and trading of human slaves.

How are systems of  injustice perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from realizing that how we treat different kinds of people might simply be wrong? And how can engage in “Kingdom work” to make reparations? In scripture, God’s kingdom and people are often compared to a vineyard. The prophet Isaiah writes a “love-song concerning his vineyard”, but is quick to call out the nation of Israel for violence and injustice.

My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
   but heard a cry!

Isaiah 5:1-2, 7

Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by consistent and honest efforts. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficulty of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

Luke 18:1-8 (Paraphrased)

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways we might be participate in systems of injustice and work toward being “repairers of the breach.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:9b-12