We left John Newton on the way back to England after having been rescued from slavery to the African Princess Peye. Be sure to go back and read Part I if you haven’t done so already to find out how he got himself into this pickle to begin with. The ship ran into a severe storm off the coast of Ireland and almost sank. At this point of crisis Newton turned to God, praying for mercy. The storm died down and the ship was able to reach port. For the rest of his life Newton marked the anniversary of this event: March 10, 1874. However, he didn’t give up participation in the slave trade, signing on with a slave ship after he got back to England and making several more voyages. He did not leave active participation in this horrible business until he suffered a stroke in 1754, when he stopped going to sea but continued to invest in others’ efforts. It isn’t clear to me exactly when he gave up even that support of slavery. Here’s a good summary from Wikipedia, however:
In 1788, 34 years after he had retired from the slave trade, Newton broke a long silence on the subject with the publication of a forceful pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships. He 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.” He had copies sent to every MP, and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required reprinting.
Here’s another good quotation from the pamphlet:
Tho’ I were even sure, that a principal branch of the public revenue depended upon the African Trade (which, I apprehend, is far from being the case), if I had access and influence, I should think myself bound to say to Government, to Parliament, and to the Nation, “It is not lawful to put it into the Treasury, because it is the price of blood.”
You may be saying as you read this, “All very well and good, but . . . 34 years?! That’s how long it took him to speak out?” And you’d be right to say that. Analyzing someone else’s actions and motivations is always a dicey proposition, with a tightrope stretching across a landscape with “excusing and justifying” on the one hand and “lambasting and excoriation” on the other. I want to avoid like the plague using the justification “at least,” as in, “Well, at least he did finally speak out.” We’d all like to have seen him, immediately upon his return from his own slavery and conversion experience, start going up and down the country urging the end of using one’s fellow human beings like cattle. All I can say is, that isn’t what he did. I’ll let him speak for himself here:
I was greatly deficient in many respects … I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.
Where does “Amazing Grace” fit into all this? Newton wrote the poem in 1772, after he had become a minister. The lyrics have been set to over 20 different tunes over the years since then, but the most popular, and pretty much the only one used today, became widespread in America during a period of spiritual revival called the Second Great Awakening during the early 1800’s. Interestingly enough, the verse beginning “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” which talks about the eternality of Heaven, was not in Newton’s original poem but was added at some point during the revivalist “tent meetings” that were widespread during this time. Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose father was a preacher, included that verse in a description of such a meeting in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it became an accepted part of the song. (I always feel a little uneasy when I sing “ten thousand years,” because in my childhood church we always sang, “ten million years.”)
It’s fair to say that Newton had a very specific meaning when he used the word “grace,” a meaning that becomes clear when the entire first line is read:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me.
A good paraphrase might be: “How blessed and sweet is the sound of the words ‘amazing grace,’ because through that grace even someone like me, a wretched sinner, has been saved.” Newton is clearly referencing the idea of salvation through grace alone, by faith alone, that is part of the Christian Gospel.
As the song became more popular, though, its message was applied more broadly. I’ve written before about how slaves on Southern plantations were influenced by the preaching they heard (or sometimes overheard) from the churches, so I won’t include that material here but would encourage you to read that post. You can certainly understand how someone in the wretched condition of slavery would see Newton’s words as a hopeful message of deliverance. As the Civil War ended but the legacy of slavery still lingered, this old hymn was still used in that way and continued on its journey through the civil rights movement. While “We Shall Overcome” is probably the most famous and popular anthem to come out of the 1960’s (and beyond) struggle, “Amazing Grace” is right up there, too.
I’m getting close to my word limit, so I’m going to urge you, indeed beg you, to read this excellent article by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, “The inspiring resonance of the film ‘Amazing Grace.’” I’m going to watch the entire film by renting it on YouTube. In the meantime, though, you can watch the trailer, and if that doesn’t make you want to do the same, well, I don’t know what to say!
Here’s the video I had planned to include originally in this post before running across the one above, but it’s also great, so I cant resist including it, too:
A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-nd–I find that I just cannot resist including Barack Obama singing the first verse of the song at the funeral of South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a pastor killed along with eight others in the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. You will note, by the way, that when the pianist comes in to join him that he’s on a definite pitch–he’s not a quarter tone off. (That pianist had a great ear.) Anyway, here it is:
Behind the Music