Guest contributor: Douglas Law Jr.
NEWTON’S GRACE: The
True Story of Amazing Grace (Inspirata
Can you remember when you first heard or sang the hymn Amazing Grace
? I have difficulty recalling my initial encounter with the famous tune and lyrics, but it seems to be a part of my earliest memories as this song is so embedded in both the religious and cultural fabric of American society. The verses of this hymn that we have come to know and love here in the United States, however, originated “across the pond” in England from the pen of seaman turned poet, John Newton (1725 – 1807). According to the PBS television series, Africans in America
, “…John Newton was born-again…at least several times during his life”.[i]
Newton’s Grace is an 84-minute historical drama written and directed by Moravian pastor, John Jackman. This feature-length movie (now on DVD) includes a mostly professional cast and a wonderful musical score. With a very low budget of an estimated $115,000, the film’s quality is still decent. The special effects, however, are mediocre compared to films with higher production budgets. [ii] Overall, the movie is well done and has garnered several outstanding awards including an award for excellence in concept and execution. “The story is very compelling,” Jackman says. “It is a story of a man whose life was completely transformed. He went from misspent youth to pretty much changing the world. This is a story I have been wanting to tell for a long time”.[iii]
Here you will find a fascinating retelling of the life of an obscure sailor whose hymn, Amazing Grace, as well as his subsequent involvement as an abolitionist has made him a historical figure. Even though film director Jackman allows for minor dramatic license with some facts of Newton’s written account in several scenes, much of the movie’s narration comes directly from Newton’s autobiography, Out of the Depths: The Autobiography of John Newton, published in 1861.
In the opening scene, we see an older John Newton as a parish minister in England receiving a visit from a rebellious boy in the community after he is chased by a neighbor who accused the young lad of stealing. Rev. Newton then rebukes the man, sparing the child from well-deserved wrath and a lashing. In return, the young boy agrees to listen to Newton’s personal “prodigal son” story in which he shares about his own delinquency as a youth, to which the boy responds with shock upon hearing of the minister’s past struggles and misadventures. [iv]
Within the remaining story, we learn of Newton’s involvement with slave ships, first on the Pegasus, where he had been transferred due to poor behavior. He would soon end up in West Africa in 1745 where the captain of his slave ship purposely abandoned him in Sierra Leone with European slave dealer Amos Clowe for not getting along with the crew. In 1748, Newton would be rescued at the request of his sea captain father in England. Boarding the ship, the Greyhound, he returned home on the final leg of that Triangle Trade voyage. Upon returning to the port at Liverpool, Newton collaborated with his father’s friend Joseph Manesty, becoming first mate on the Brownlow and sailing for the West Indies by way of the coast of Guinea.
Eventually, Newton began to return to his Christian roots. He discovered the book, Imitation of Christ,by Thomas a Kempis and began reading the Bible. He marked March 10, 1748 as the anniversary of his return to faith. [v] Still, he did not renounce the life of slave trading and would go on to make three more voyages as captain of the slave ships Duke of Argyle (1750) and African (1752–53 and 1753–54); he continued to work in the slave trade, but gained sympathy for the slaves during his time in Africa. He later said: ‘I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.’“[vi]
Additionally, mentoring by merchant ship captain Alexander Clunie was pivotal in Newton’s continued spiritual growth. After some time, while appointed a tide surveyor (i.e., customs inspector), he had the time to prepare for ordination in the Church of England as an Anglican priest.
Inspired by the leadership of such luminaries of his time, like George Whitfield, the great evangelist and theologian, Newton in turn would go on to influence many others – especially within the Abolitionist movement. One such individual was William Wilberforce, a Member of the British Parliament. Eventually, Newton would become an abolitionist himself. In giving evidence to both the Privy Council and the Parliamentary Committee (the only former slave captain to do so), he became a true lobbyist in England against the slave trade of Great Britain and elsewhere. [vii]
“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 during the Middle Passage. 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.’” [viii] He had copies sent to every member of the British Parliament, and the pamphlet sold so well that it quickly required an additional reprinting. John Newton would live to see passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, the year of his death.
Moved by the Scripture, 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, Newton and William Cowper (authors of the original hymn book, Olney Hymns) wrote the famous verses of the hymn Amazing Grace. They wrote the original poem quickly within an afternoon. The music was added separately and much later. Though not his only hymn, Amazing Grace (which was barely popular in England) was reprinted in the United States and became a gospel music success, particularly in the Southern states. The current music of the hymn was adapted from an old plantation tune and soon became merged with the lyrics. It gradually became one of America’s “spiritual national anthems,” and by the 1960s, had eventually become the “most performed and most recorded song” in music history. [ix]
In 2015, President Obama
on his visit to Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church sang “Amazing Grace” in his attempt to heal a hurting nation after the Charleston church massacre
in which white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; Myra Thompson, 59.
Then as now, this song resonates strongly.
“Newton’s Grace is the true story of a real “prodigal son”, the story of miraculous forgiveness and change that lies behind the powerful words of one of the world’s most beloved hymns.” [x]
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.3. Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.6. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
[stanza 6 is excluded from the American version]
Morgan, Robert J, Then Sings My Soul, Thomas Nelson
Newton, John (2003),
Hillman, Dennis, ed., Out of the Depths:
The Autobiography of John Newton,
Grand Rapids: Kregel
For more information
The Charleston Syllabus eds. Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, Keisha Blain.
On the Road with The Weeping Time…
with on Sirius XM, Insight Channel 21 with host, John Fugelsang,
http://www.johnfugelsang.com/Thank you John Fugelsang for a great conversation.
Wed., January 31, 2018
Departments of History and Middle Eastern and
New York University
53 Washington Square South, 4th Flr
New York, NY 10012-1098