John Newton wrote the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” in December 1772 when he was 47 years old. At the time, he regarded it as just one more unremarkable hymn among the many hundreds of hymns that he had already written and that he would yet write. Yet, this hymn marked a watershed in his experience that he would not be able to properly speak about publicly for many years.
From his childhood, John Newton’s life was totally compartmentalised by the society in which he lived, and there were, in effect, two parallel sides to John Newton in history.
- One side of John Newton was the Christian from childhood who loved to read, to think, and to debate; he soon grew to become the churchgoer, the hymn writer, the sermon writer, the worship leader, the preacher, the theological contemplative, the encourager of the flock, and a Christian minister.
- The other side of John Newton was, starting from 1748 when he was 23 years old, a ruthless and vicious slave trader who, for five years, cruelly exploited thousands of slaves that he took from Africa’s west coast and then sold in various places across the Americas.
To grasp the significance of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and to truly understand the man who wrote that hymn, we need to look back into John Newton’s slave trading years and take a journey into his heart and into his mind, as well as understanding the culture of the day in which John Newton lived.
Though a Christian from childhood and not a great lover of alcohol, John Newton excelled in every other sin and over-indulgence that he had the opportunity to fall into, and he had a lot of opportunities. Just two examples:
- The churchman that I have already described was also a womanizer who, in his own words, had “eyes full of adultery”.
- Newton’s language on board ship was filled with blasphemies and with swearing of the worst kind.
Yet, John Newton’s life was also about church on Sundays when he was at home, and it was about a life of wealth and respectability in the Christian community until it was time to once again set sail for the west coast of Africa. There Newton would pick up hundreds of manacled and chained African slaves who were confined to the very bottom of his ship and who had no names – each of them were merely stamped with a number that they were given as they were forced aboard the ship, and they were then herded into the hold.
In order to reduce the risk of mutiny by the slaves, they were treated very harshly and they were chained and manacled in the bottom of the ship, and the ship’s guns were constantly pointed down towards those slaves. For those perilous journeys from Africa to the Americas, the slaves were given only contaminated food and contaminated water. The slaves were packed very tightly together and therefore had no room to move down there in the hold where they had no toilets of even the crudest kind and they were lying in their own filth, vomit and disease fluids.
Unsurprisingly, diseases like dysentery were rampant among the slaves and many died on the journeys, and their bodies were simply thrown overboard. The death rate among the African slaves on slave ships such as Newton’s was around twenty percent. In many ways, it is surprising that the death toll was not actually much higher.
Even the slightest wrong word or misdeed by the slaves would be punished by a severe beating that could leave the slaves permanently injured. Such beatings were often carried out by John Newton himself, and he kept a detailed record of his life on board ship, noting every slave he had beaten and why he had beaten them. John Newton proved himself to be as brutal and as severe a ship master as any slave trader, and he never hesitated to inflict severe pain and extreme suffering on his human cargo in order to maintain order among the slaves.
The journey from the west coast of Africa to the Americas was one of thousands of miles that took many weeks and, having finally sold his cargo of African slaves, Newton pointed his ship back towards England and to Liverpool for the long journey home.
Once he was back home, John Newton lived in the wealth of his slave trading and he attended church on Sundays, he wrote hymns, he composed sermons, he wrote reflectively and theologically, and he worshipped Jesus. This life went on for five years, and John Newton saw no conflict between the two lives, he saw nothing that caused him to question his way of life, and he even frequently spent the long journeys aboard his ship writing more hymns, writing more sermons, and writing his theological reflections, even as he was beating slaves.
We need to understand that, in those days, black Africans (as other slaves) were not regarded as human beings, but were seen as being merely sub-human property that was incapable of being human and were therefore fit only to be slaves that were to be traded for profit and, ultimately, to be disposed of when no longer useful. Slave trading was very common in those days, and it was regarded as a legitimate way of life and as a normal way of making money from the plentiful resource of what was regarded as ‘sub-human property’ that was available in Africa.
Many cities in England and Scotland were built on slave trading, and many of their streets and buildings were named after slave locations, slave owners and slave traders. In Liverpool (as in many cities in the UK), slavery was a common and a normal part of life, and the wealth gained from slavery extended into churches where the rich slave traders sat in their own designated pews in the most prestigious of England’s churches.
It was not conscience that stopped John Newton from slave trading; it was a stroke in 1753. Unable to master a ship after the stroke, he immersed himself in various churches and he sought to grow in his theological understanding, and it helped that he was living during a time of extraordinary religious revival in England in which he became a rapidly rising star in Liverpool and beyond.
Evangelicalism was on the rise across England and the Anglican church was being shaken to its very foundations by this new movement that claimed to be of God and that was sweeping the land. Newton made the most of his rising popularity as he visited many assemblies and many churches, and he attended prayer meetings that were organised by Anglicans, Baptists, Independents, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists and Moravians. Everywhere he went he made his presence felt, and his conversion story was getting well-known across Liverpool and in wider circles.
John Newton’s brutal past in slave trading had become a dramatic ‘slave trader to Christian’ conversion story that thrilled his many listeners, even if he kept somewhat quiet about having been a Christian since childhood and therefore was a Christian during the five years of his slave trading. John Newton was changing inside as he was then no longer slave trading and he was also immersed in a Christian culture but the change in him was slow, though those friends who were close to him knew that change was happening. As Paul had written in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Newton was being changed by one degree of glory into another.
In April 1764, at the age of 39, John Newton was ordained as the curate of Olney, and he was appointed as priest in June of that same year. In 1772, John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” because something profound had happened to him that he never really described in words – except in his hymns, and especially so in “Amazing Grace” itself so that, for John Newton, a milestone had been reached.
Slavery was so common in those days that Newton’s past was by no means unusual, yet John Newton himself was by this time a new man who had truly been redeemed by the Saviour’s amazing grace. He was growing to be deeply ashamed of the life that he had previously lived as a Christian from childhood yet also as a slave trader for five years who had become wealthy through the slave trading.
In 1779, John Newton was offered and accepted the parish of St Mary Woolnoth in London, close to the Bank of England. John Newton was ready for London since he had yearned for such a move for some time, and it seemed that London was ready for him. In London, John Newton had access to an amazingly varied company of worshippers and admirers that included clerics, visitors, MPs, and many others who came to his prayer breakfasts or who sought out his personal counsel.
Among those admirers who grew close to the slave trader turned minister John Newton around that time was a certain William Wilberforce. The “Amazing Grace” that had changed John Newton was working in him to begin to make him an outspoken opponent of slavery alongside others like Wilberforce. The rest, as they say, is history.
What had happened to John Newton that his life had suddenly changed so radically after five years as a Christian and as a slave trader, and that made him write the words of “Amazing Grace”? Though he did not use this terminology, John Newton had given Jesus the keys of his life.
John Newton’s heart had been deeply touched by Jesus and the inner impact on Newton was dramatic and revolutionary. John Newton’s life was no longer compartmentalised and the Jesus that he then knew filled and affected every area of his life, with nothing held back or kept secret. For John Newton, that meant openly confessing about being both a Christian and a slaver trader and realising that the two were not, in fact, compatible. John Newton recognised that black Africans were just as human as he was. History truly was being written.
You and I may not be slave traders, but our society and its culture has conditioned us to have lives that are just as deeply compartmentalised as John Newton’s life had been – for example:
- Work is secular; church is sacred.
- Prayer meetings are sacred; shopping is secular.
- “Amazing Grace” is sacred music; the pop charts are secular music.
- And so on.
We need to have that compartmentalisation of our inner selves demolished, but demolished safely. That began to happen for me when Jesus asked me to give him the keys of my life. When I gave Jesus the keys of my life and my life began to be no longer compartmentalised, what did the end of that inner compartmentalisation for me mean?
- My being was love-focused, not sin-focused.
- Jesus had the keys to unlock all the secret rooms of my heart in his timing.
- Jesus knew my heart and my motives.
- I was free from trying to perform better and so able to please God all the more by being myself.
- I was able in Christ to focus on my inner being – my identity – instead of focusing on my performance.