Grace>The Creation of Amazing Grace
The Creation of "Amazing Grace"
NOTE: This information is reproduced from an article at the Library
Arguably the best-known Christian hymn is "Amazing
text, a poem penned in 1772 by John Newton, describes the joy
of a soul uplifted from despair to salvation through the gift
of grace. Newton's words are also a vivid autobiographical commentary
on how he was spared from both physical and spiritual ruin. It
relates the happy ending of the tale of a defiant man who manages
again and again to escape danger, disease, abuse, and death,
only to revert to "struggles between sin and conscience." [
Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, a London suburb that thrived
on shipping and sea trade. His father, a merchant ship captain,
was often away on sea voyages that typically lasted two to three
years. During one of these absences, Newton's mother succumbed
to tuberculosis, leaving him in the temporary care of her friends,
the Catlett family in Kent. His father remarried and Newton was
placed in boarding school. He stayed in close contact with the
Catletts, however, primarily because of their daughter, Mary,
whom he eventually wed. Mary was the cornerstone of Newton's
existence. No matter what befell him, his goal always was to
return to her.
In spite of the powerful message of "Amazing Grace," Newton's
religious beliefs initially lacked conviction. Raised far afield
of the prevailing Anglican traditions, Newton's youth was marked
by religious confusion and, as he later confirmed, a lack of
moral self-control and discipline. His father was educated as
a Catholic by Jesuits in Spain and his mother was a so-called
Nonconformist Christian who rejected the liturgy-based worship
of the Church of England.
Nevertheless, Newton's life, rife with the "dangers, toils
and snares" at which his text hints, repeatedly brought
him face-to-face with the notion that he had been miraculously
spared. On one occasion, he was thrown from a horse, narrowly
missing impalement on a row of sharp stakes. Another time, he
arrived too late to board a tender that was carrying his companions
to tour a warship; as he watched from the shore, the vessel overturned,
drowning all its passengers. Years later, on a hunting expedition
in Africa on a moonless night, he and his companions got lost
in a swamp. Just when they had resigned themselves to death,
the moon appeared and they were able to return to safety. Such
near-death were commonplace in Newton's life.
Yet no matter how many times he was rescued, Newton relapsed
into his old habits, continuing to defy his religious destiny
and attempting to dissuade others from their beliefs. Of all
of the sins to which he later confessed, his habit of chipping
away at the faith of others remained heaviest on his heart.
In 1744 Newton was press-ganged--taken by force into service
in the Royal Navy. He was disgraced, relieved of his post, and
traded for another man from a passing merchant ship, a slave
Beginning his career in slave trading, Newton soon became tempted
by its profits. Merchants believed that trafficking in human
trade was justified since slavery was permitted in the Bible
as long as slaves were treated with dignity and kindness. [ 2 ] That Newton engaged in the slave trade in such a manner was
demonstrated by the willingness of slaves to secretly carry his
letters to port to send to Mary.
Despite a promising start with a slaver off the coast of Sierra
Leone, Newton once again found himself in tough straits. Felled
by malaria, he was at the mercy of the slaver's native mistress,
whose abuse reduced him to the condition of the "wretch" he
later described in "Amazing Grace." He recovered, however,
but was soon to face another trial during which he was strengthened
and inspired by Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ.
Newton was aboard ship one night when a violent storm broke
out. Moments after he left the deck, the crewman who had taken
his place was swept overboard. Although he manned the vessel
for the remainder of the tempest, he later commented that, throughout
the tumult, he realized his helplessness and concluded that only
the grace of God could save him. Prodded by what he had read
in Kempis, Newton took the first--albeit small--step toward accepting
religion. In the words of his hymn, this incident marked "the
hour I first believed."
Upon his safe return home in the late 1740s, Newton immediately
wrote to the Catlett family to plead his case for Mary's hand,
although he could offer her no financial security. When Mary
herself replied that she would consider his suit, he returned
to slaving to better his fortunes, this time on a ship full of
slaves bound across the Atlantic to Charleston, South Carolina.
Newton wed Mary Cartlett in 1750. A changed man, he accepted
the helm of a ship bound for Africa. This time, he encouraged
the sailors under his charge to prayer rather than taunt them
for their beliefs. He also began to ensure that every member
of his crew treated their human cargo with gentleness and concern.
However, it would be another 40 years until Newton openly challenged
the trafficking of slaves.
Some three years after his marriage, Newton suffered a stroke
that prevented him from returning to sea; in time, he interpreted
this as another step in his spiritual voyage. He assumed a post
in the Customs Office in the port of Liverpool and began to explore
Christianity more fully. As Newton attempted to experience all
the various expressions of Christianity, it became clear that
he was being called to the ministry.
Since Newton lacked a university degree, he could not be ordained
through normal channels. However, the landlord of the parish
at Olney was so impressed with the letters Newton had written
about his conversion that he offered the church to Newton; he
was ordained in June 1764.
In Olney, the new curate met the poet William Cowper, also a
newly-born Christian. Their friendship led to a spiritual collaboration
that completed the inspiration for "Amazing Grace," the
poem Newton most likely penned around Christmas of 1772. Some
60 years later in America, the text was set to the hymn tune, "New
Britain," to which it has been sung ever since.
The Former Slaver against Slavery
Even though many of England's
great shipping cities prospered from the slave trade, social
critics began to speak out against the practice by the mid-18th
century. By the 1780s, the powerful voice of Wilbur Wilberforce (pictured
to the right) was added to this chorus.
Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, was the nephew of one of
Newton's London friends. Inspired by the former slave trader,
and paralleling Newton's own conversion, Wilberforce began to
question his role in life. Although Newton, then a lowly Olney
curate, was convinced that Wilberforce was just another wealthy
politician, he persuaded him to crusade for change and use his
station in life and his powerful friends (including Prime Minister
Pitt) to seek reform. One of the chief topics for such advocacy
was abolition. In fact, Wilberforce wrote in his journal on October
28, 1787, that one of the two goals that had been set before
him was "the suppression of the Slave Trade."
Newton joined in the fight for the abolition of slavery by publishing
the essay "Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade." Because
Christians still felt that slavery was justified in the Bible,
Newton and Wilberforce wisely avoided building their protests
on a religious platform. Instead, they condemned the practice
as an inhumane treatment of their fellow men and women. Newton,
speaking strongly from his own experiences, also proposed that
the captors were in turn brutalized by their callous treatment
of others and cited offences including torture, rape, and murder.
Newton's friend, the poet William Cowper, joined their fight
by writing pro-abolition poems and ballads.
In 1789 Wilberforce introduced a "Bill for the Abolition
of Slavery" in Parliament. The bill faced opposition in
both Houses, but the forces against enactment became weaker each
time it came up for a vote. The bill finally was passed by the
House of Commons in 1804 and by the House of Lords in 1807 after
which King George III declared it law.
There is no direct link between "Amazing Grace" and
the abolition of slavery in Britain. Nonetheless, the hymn was
written by a man who was moved to speak out against something
from which he had once profited. In an essay Newton said: "I
hope 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." Thus, it seems fitting that
his hymn has become for so many--including those fighting for
Civil Rights--an anthem against all forms of social injustice.
1. Information for this essay was drawn in great part from Steve
Turner's book "Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most
Beloved Song" (New York: HarperCollins, 2002). We are grateful
to the author for allowing us to quote his book liberally.
2. As Turner notes, the Quakers and Anabaptists were the only
Christians to speak out against slavery (p. 50)