John Newton writes the following about himself.
“My father was a very sensible, and a moral man, as the world rates morality; but neither he, nor my step-mother, was under the impressions of religion: I was, therefore, much left to myself, to mingle with idle and wicked boys; and soon learnt their ways.”
And learn them he did, and not just from wicked boys. This is the John Newton who worked aboard a “respectable” slave ship and then became the captain of his own. But this is also the John Newton who later wrote “Amazing Grace,” probably the most famous of all folk hymns.
That song has been sung in countless arrangements and to different tunes. I love the version by The Five Blind Boys of Alabama sung to the music of “The House of the Rising Sun”. Soulful. Incredible.
And the fabulous mash up of those two same songs performed by Jerry Lawson And The Talk Of The Town on NBC’s The Sing-Off season 2.
And the more traditional version featured on the movie Amazing Grace sung by Chris Tomlin and titled “Amazing Grace (my chains are gone)”.
There are simply too many wonderful versions to list.
But what makes this song so wonderful is not only the words, but also the story behind the song. This song isn’t a song of theology—it’s John Newton’s own heartfelt expression of gratitude to God, who helped him turn from his profane and wicked life and eventually fight against the ills he practiced. Later in life, Newton became a supporter and inspiration to William Wilberforce who lead the fight to pass the British Slave Trade Act in 1807, which abolished the slave trade in that empire.
Although the experience of Newton’s turning point is dramatic, and referred to in the song, his change didn’t occur over night. In fact, it took him a number of years to fully come to himself. It was 34 years AFTER he retired from slavery, which was years AFTER he turned toward a new life, that he published his forceful pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in which he describes the horrific conditions of the slave ships and apologizes for a confession that “comes too late” and “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.”
My heart soars when seeing someone turn a life around (maybe because I’m in need of a turnaround). It’s such a wonderful and instructive tale of hope.
Recently, Asbury University Media Com students and an Asbury Art Dept student under the direction of Professor Greg Bandy produced a short 14 minute documentary called Amazing Grace: The Story Behind the Song on the fascinating story of how John Newton wrote the most famous hymn in the world . . . and helped bring about one of the most powerful social justice movements in the history of Western Civilization. It’s a great tale. Watch it below.