History of Amazing Grace: its Role in Abolishing the Slave Trade
On February 23, 1807, the British parliament passed a bill banning the nation’s slave trade. In these two articles, we’ll explore the lives of two men and one song that played a significant role in that effort.
John Newton’s devoted Christian mother dreamed that her only son would grow up to become a preacher. But he lost his mother when he was six years old, and at the age of eleven, followed his sea-captain father to the sea. He did not take to the discipline of the Royal Navy and deserted ship, was flogged, and eventually discharged.
In looking for greater liberty, he ended up on the western coast of Africa in Sierra Leone, where he worked for a slave trader who mistreated him and made him a virtual slave of the trader’s black wife, who had descended from African royalty. At this time, he was described as
“a wretched-looking man toiling in a plantation of lemon trees in the Island of Plantains… clothes had become rags, no shelter and begging for unhealthy roots to allay his hunger.”
After more than a year of such treatment, he escaped the island by appealing to his father in 1747.
The following year at sea, his ship was battered by a severe storm off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland. Newton had been reading “The Imitation of Christ,” and in great fear, while he rowed and bailed for hours (for he could not swim!), he cried out to God to save him, a wretched sinner. Years later, he looked back and penned these autobiographical words.
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.
John Newton, Epilogue
Ironically, following his conversion to Christianity, Newton spent the next six years as captain of slave ships. While he had religious services on board, he eventually came to abhor slavery and later to crusade against it. He influenced British Member of Parliament William Wilberforce to become active in working to abolish it. (We’ll discuss Wilberforce’s story in a subsequent article.)
Newton later studied for the ministry and attracted large audiences as an Anglican priest when he preached where he was known as “the old…