Did you know the author of “Amazing Grace” was once a slave trader?
Amazing Grace, the hymn published by the Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725-1807) in 1779, is one of the most popular selections in Christian songbooks, and one of the most recognizable songs in the world. By one reasonably reliable account, it is sung over 10 million times annually.
“Amazing Grace,” a 2015 Broadway musical was loosely based on Newton’s life. Also, a character based on Newton appears in the 2006 film, “Amazing Grace,” about the inspiration for the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The hymn has also been the font of historical myths and misunderstandings. One particularly dramatic one, and one that has been flying around the internet for over a decade, is that the author John Newton had a Christian conversion after surviving a devastating storm that almost wrecked his ship.
His ship? You just said he was an Anglican clergyman, Professor. Well, yes. John Newton did have a second career as a member of the clergy, but his first career was as a member of a very different type of profession — slave trader.
The myth is that while being saved from the storm, Newton had the flash of inspiration that the slave trade was evil. The story is that the words to “Amazing Grace” came to him while he was being delivered from the storm. He turned his ship around, stopped slave trading, and went back to England to join the church and fight for the abolition of the slave trade.
That’s the story, and it’s too good to be true. Here’s what actually happened:
Newton was born in 1725, into a ship-making and seafaring family. As a young man he took long trading voyages with his father, and later worked on other merchant vessels. In 1744 he was impressed into the Royal Navy. Between 1744 and 1748 he worked at least two merchant vessels, including the slave ship Pegasus. Apparently he was not the best ship mate, because the crew of the Pegasus abandoned him in West Africa and he was captured and enslaved by the local Sherbro people. Rescued by a British merchant ship in 1748, Newton sailed back for England.
The ship got caught in a very violent storm and was nearly wrecked off the coast of Ireland. Newton and the crew barely survived, mostly by luck. But Newton attributed his survival to Providence and he became a committed Christian.
Arriving in Liverpool in late 1748, he then hired onto the slave ship Brownlow, and returned to West Africa to continue slave trading. He kept slaving until 1754, becoming captain of two major ships in the 1750s. His faith didn’t stop his slave trading career — a stroke did. After leaving the sea, he became a customs officer in Liverpool and invested some of his savings in slave trading companies throughout the 1750s and early 1760s.
While in Liverpool, his faith apparently deepened. He attended different churches and eventually studied for the Anglican priesthood and was ordained in 1764. He was given a parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire and started his clerical life. In 1767 the poet William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) moved to Olney and became a member of Newton’s church. They became friends, and for the next few years began to write hymns together. These were published as Olney Hymns in 1779. It proved to be an influential book, and many of the hymns became very popular, including one of Newton’s hymns that he wrote in 1772 called “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”
That hymn is better known by its opening phrase, “Amazing Grace.”
It wasn’t until 1780 that Newton began to reconsider the morality of the slave trade, and especially the part he had taken in it. This was eight years after he’d written “Amazing Grace,” and 32 years after the famous storm that nearly killed him and started him on the path to faith. In 1785 he began to speak out against the slave trade. He lived to see the slave trade abolished in the British Empire by an Act of Parliament on March 25, 1807. Newton died at the end of that year.
So there’s absolutely no evidence for the story that a nearly-drowned John Newton scribbled the words to “Amazing Grace” on the deck of his almost-wrecked slave ship, that his new-found faith caused him to end his slaving right then and there, and that he started fighting for the abolition of slavery the moment he got home.
What happened to the hymn?
“Amazing Grace” was actually well on its way to obscurity in the years after Newton’s death. It was just one of a great number of published hymns. When they were sung, different tunes were applied to hymns by different clergy or choirmasters at different times. From what we can tell, one of the earliest tunes used for “Amazing Grace” was called “Hephzibah,” written by John Jenkins Husband in the early 1800s.
Then a couple of things happened that helped make “Amazing Grace” so popular…
The Second Great Revival, a religious revival movement that stressed emotion, singing, and charismatic preaching became very influential in the early nineteenth century. One of the most musically innovative things about the Second Great Revival was the development of shape note singing. Shape note transcription involved adding different shapes to the note heads in a melody. Apparently this helped groups sing together and get the harmonies right. It was also easy to learn shape note singing, and it became a very popular technique. Hymn singing exploded in popularity.
The next thing to happen was that a South Carolinian Baptist “song leader,” William Walker, put Newton’s “Amazing Grace” hymn to the traditional tune “New Britain” (composer unknown) in 1835. Walker published it in his 1847 hymnbook named Southern Harmony (using shape notation). Walker’s book was a best-seller, more than 600,000 copies sold, and his musical version of “Amazing Grace” got lots of exposure.
This version of “Amazing Grace” was very singable, its lyrics touched people individually, and at the same time seemed to have a special communal attraction. It brought people together, and became the dominant hymn in Protestant America. It was included in hymnals given to soldiers in the Civil War (on both sides), and was very often sung at soldiers’ funerals. It was also translated into many languages, including Cherokee.
“Amazing Grace” remained somewhat popular into the 20th century, but it really got boosted by various folk song revivals from the 1920s to the 1960s. Mahalia Jackson’s 1947 recorded version was a huge hit, and she often sang it at concerts at Carnegie Hall and other major public occasions. Joan Baez even sang it at Woodstock in 1969.
“Amazing Grace” had become both a standard American song and a counter-culture American song. One of the things Judy Collins thought about when she recorded it in 1970 was the pity and sorrow of The Vietnam War. Her record became a massive hit and the rest is popular music history.
Bernard Martin, John Newton: a Biography (1950)
John Pollock, Amazing Grace: John Newton’s Story (1981)
Catherine Swift, John Newton (1991)
Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: from Disgrace to Amazing Grace (2013)
Judy Collins’ a capella version (video)