Words of revelation from the slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace
We've all sung the song, learned the words, seen the Barack Obama rendition. Amazing Grace is arguably the most well-known and beloved hymn of the last two centuries.
Its author, John Newton, was not just being poetic when he talked about being a wretch; he was being honest. The song is an autobiographictal account of the former slave trader's spiritual conversion – if anyone needed amazing grace it was him.
A brief bio – A boy on the sea
The first miracle
His rescue ship was almost John's death — on the way home it encountered a severe storm and nearly sank. John awoke in the middle of the night and, as the ship filled with water, called out to God. It was recognized as a miracle when the ship drifted to safety.
John began reading the Bible and other religious literature and by the time he got to England he had accepted the principles of evangelical Christianity. He recognized this time as his conversion and decided to renounce profanity, gambling, and drinking.
He did, however, continue to work in the slave trade for some time. "I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word until a considerable time afterwards," he said.
From slave trader to abolitionist
He continued to work in the slave trade in 1749 and 1750, when he married Mary in St Margaret's Church in Rochester.
Finally, in 1754, John Newton retired from the slave trade and became an Anglican priest. Thirty-four years later, in 1788, he published Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. "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."
Over the course of his life John turned himself around to the point where he not only had abandoned his old ways but was working actively against them.
He once said, "If it were possible for me to alter any part of God's plan, I could only spoil it." And he tried to live the rest of his life this way, following the path God had paved out for him.
He came to find a source of immense comfort and hope in God, and he said, "If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable."
Plagued by ill health and failing eyesight, John Newton died on 21 December 1807 and was buried beside his wife in St. Mary Woolnoth in London.
His comforting hymn would outlive him by hundreds of years, and doubtless many more to come.•