Today marks the 200th anniversary of the British parliament passing 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 large 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 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 his black mistress. At this time he was described as “a wretched looking man toiling in a plantation of lemon trees in the Island of Plaintains… 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 through an appeal to his father in 1747.
The next year at sea, his ship was battered by a severe storm. 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.
Epilogue: Ironically, following his conversion to Christianity, Newton spent the next six years as captain of a slave ship. 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 when he preached where he was known as “the old converted sea captain.” He collaborated with the poet William Cowper in producing the Olney Hymns, which became the standard hymnal of evangelical Anglican churches.
In his old age, when it was suggested that he retire due to his bad health and failing recollection, he said,
“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”
His song, Amazing Grace, has become the American anthem and influenced many generations. You can learn more at www.amazinggracemovie.com
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian