Amazing Grace – Probably the best known hymn in the English speaking world! Performed,it is estimated, about 10 million times every year, it is loved by folk singers, protest movements, church congregations, pipe bands, bag pipers and choirs the world over. Often thought to be an African American Spiritual, it was in fact written by an Englishman John Newton, a slave trader who at one time found refuge from a storm in the sheltered waters of Lough Swilly in north Donegal, Ireland,where he penned the first verse.
John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping,London, England, the son of a shipmaster. His seagoing career began at the age of 11 when he first sailed with his father. At the age of 18 he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy and served aboard the HMS Harwich. At his own request some time later, he transferred to the Pegasus heading for West Africa. Pegasus was a slave trader and was in all probability plying the triangular route,sailing from Liverpool towards the west coast of Africa where one commodity was traded for another – in this case goods such as textiles and rum were traded for humans. Crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands and North Americas, the so-called ‘Middle Passage’ these human ‘commodities’ were then sold, the ship reloaded with sugar,cotton, tobacco then sailed back to its Liverpool base.
Newton was a deeply unpopular man. He was loudmouthed and rebellious,given to profanity and heavy drinking. He was disliked so much by those on board the Pegasus that they abandoned him to a slave dealer in West Africa. Here in Sierra Leone he had a miserable time. He described his humiliating existence as being a ‘servant of slaves’. It was during this period that he began to show a passing interest in Christianity. In 1748 he was rescued by the captain of the Greyhound, probably at the instigation of his father who had asked the captain to keep a look out for him. However,on March 10,1748, en route back to Liverpool,the Greyhound encountered a violent storm off the coast of Ireland. She was relentlessly pounded by heavy seas for weeks on end. Holed and taking on water. Newton pleaded with God to spare him and the crew. But the terror continued for a number of weeks, as the damaged Greyhound drifted helplessly and food supplies ran low. Newton later wrote in his autobiography, ”An Authentic Narrative”
‘We saw the island of Tory and the next day anchored in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This was the 8th day of April, just four weeks after the damage we sustained from the sea. Then we came into this port, our very last victuals was boiling in the pot; and before we had been there two hours, the wind began to blow with great violence. If we had continued at sea that night in our shattered condition, we must have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayers‘.
While her crew enjoyed the hospitality of the locals who lived on the Lough, local tradesmen set about repairing the Greyhound. Newton attended church at nearby Derry/Londonderry and it is thought that he penned the first verse of Amazing Grace while at Lough Swilly.
Amazing Grace! How Sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
For the rest of his life, Newton marked March 10th as the date on which he was converted to Christianity.
However, conversion to Christianity did not divert Newton from his human trafficking trade. For the next number of years, he sailed on the slave ships working the ‘triangle’ route between Liverpool, Africa and the West Indies eventually captaining his own ships. He was not in any way kind to his captives. He reputedly had guns trained on them to maintain order,or placed them in thumbscrews to keep them quiet.He did not feel there was any conflict between trading slaves and being a christian and indeed this was the widely held belief in the 18th Century. In 1754 he had a serious health scare while at St Kitts, an island in the West Indies. This experience deepened his faith further, as he was once again saved from death. He resolved while here to enter the church. His last captaincy was in 1754, but for years afterwards he continued to invest in the slave trade. Meanwhile,his religious convictions grew deeper until finally, in 1764, he was accepted by the Church of England and became curate for the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire in England where he was based for the next 16 years. Newton developed a reputation as an inspirational orator and people thronged to his little church to hear him speak. It was here that he met the poet William Cowper and they collaborated in producing the world famous Olney Hymns, published in 1779. Newton’s Amazing Grace was included in the hymnal. The tune is unknown but it bears a strong resemblance to a West African ‘sorrow chant’or lament, which Newton may often have heard as the human cargo was being loaded up.
In 1780, Newton was transferred to the London City parish of St Mary Woolnoth. This church is in Lombard Street and was familiar to me when I worked in the City of London.It has survived a number of attempts to have it demolished, including one when the underground rail system was going beneath it. There was public outcry, and the railway company had to be satisfied with putting the lift shafts for Bank Underground station directly under the floor. It is now a listed building.
Among Newton’s parishioners there was William Wilberforce a young member of parliament who had been a recent convert. They became firm friends. Newton counselled Wilberforce to remain in politics and use his new found beliefs to improve the world. This Wilberfoce did with “with increased diligence and conscientiousness”. Wilberforce spearheaded the cause of the abolition of slavery in the House of Commons from 1789, no doubt in part influenced by Newton’s 1788 publication ‘Thoughts upon the Slave Trade’ which was a hard hitting account of the misery experienced by the human cargo, in particular highlighting the dreadful conditions on the ‘Middle Passage’. Newton sent a copy of his pamphlet to every member of Parliament and it became very popular. In it he stated: ‘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 lived to see the enactment the Slave Trade Act in 1807,which declared the slave trade illegal in the British Empire, but only just. In frail health he died just months afterwards on December 21st 1807. He wrote his own epitaph which is on a plaque at St Mary Woolnoth:
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk
Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
restored, pardoned and appointed to preach
the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.
Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,
And twenty eight years in this Church.
Originally interred at St Mary Woolnoth, John Newton and his wife,who had predeceased him,were re interred at Olney in 1893, at the little Church where he began his religious life. His epitaph is also inscribed on his tombstone there. This church has beautiful stained glass windows which portray the Greyhound – one being tossed in a wild sea, the other safely at Lough Swilly.
The island of St Kitts opened an Amazing Grace Experience in 2014, dedicated to telling the story of John Newton, who traded slaves for sugar on the island.
A newly founded Amazing Grace Festival centred in Buncrana on Lough Swilly takes place annually to mark John Newton’s arrival on April 8th 1748. The festival features fun and uplifting events for all ages including history, music, dance, arts and crafts, exhibitions, faith stories, and more.
Everyone has their own favourite rendition of Amazing Grace – this one by Judy Collins, is mine.