As we reflect on the toppling of the statue in Bristol of Edward Colston, son of the city and great philanthropist using money he made from the slave trade, let’s reflect on a great hymn written in the context of the slave trade: “Amazing Grace”. This hymn could be the most beloved hymn of the last two centuries. It is estimated to have been performed 10 million times annually. It has been recorded by Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Elvis amongst many others.
Ironically, this stirring song, now closely associated with the African-American community, was written by a former slave trader, John Newton.
As a slave trader, his ship, the Greyhound, returning to England had been thrashing about in a north Atlantic storm for over a week. Its canvas sails were ripped, and the wood on one side of the ship had been torn away and splintered. On the eleventh day of the storm, sailor John Newton was too exhausted to pump, so he was tied to the helm and told to try to hold the ship to its course. Newton prayed to God. The cargo miraculously shifted to fill a hole in the ship’s hull and the vessel drifted to safety. Newton took this as a sign from the Almighty and marked it as his conversion to Christianity.
But his total reformation was more gradual. "I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards,” he later wrote. He still was serving on slave ships.
In 1764, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and wrote 280 hymns to accompany his services. He wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” in 1772.
He was later to write: “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.” His life and writings caught the attention of MP William Wilberforce, the famous campaigner against slavery. The English government outlawed slavery in Great Britain in 1807 and Newton lived to see it, dying in December of that year.
Several other hymns by Newton are still in regular use today eg "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds," and "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken."
At the end of his life he told his friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."