Black History:  Special Delivery!!

“Amazing Grace” is one of the most well-known and beloved hymns of all time.  The song has appeared on over 11,000 albums. It has been recorded by many different music artists, including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Elvis.  The hymn is loved by the black church as well.  The hymn was penned by former slave trader John Newton (1725-1807) in 1772.  Newton was born in London. His mother died just before his 7th birthday.  His father was a sea captain who transported enslaved Africans from Africa to England. At the age of 11, he joined his father at sea.  As he got older, Newton began drinking and leading a reckless lifestyle. He was later forced to join the British Navy.  While serving, he tried to desert, and he received 96 lashes and was demoted.  Newton would go on to work as a crew member and captain on ships that transported enslaved Africans from Africa to the Americas.

While working on the slave ship, “Pegasus,” he did not get along with the crew. As a result they left him in Africa with a slave trader, Amos Crowe. Crowe enslaved Newton and gave him to his African wife, Princess Peye.  She treated him very cruelly, just as she did her other slaves. Newton’s father hired a sea captain to rescue him and bring him back to London. He returned home on the ship, “Greyhound.” During the voyage home, the ship encountered a terrible storm. The ship began to fill with water near the hull and nearly sank. Newton began to pray, and the cargo on the ship miraculously shifted and covered the whole, stopping the water from filling the ship.  The Greyhound was then able to make it safely to shore. Newton believed that God had protected him and converted to Christianity at the age of 23. His newfound conversion did not immediately result in him renouncing slavery. He continued his work in the slave trade, making three more voyages to bring enslaved Africans to England.  

In 1750, Newton married Mary Catlett. The couple did not have children but did adopt Newton’s two nieces.  In 1754, he retired from life at sea after suffering a stroke. However, he still continued to invest money into the slave trade.  Newton was ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church in 1764. During this time, he wrote over 200 hymns, which he used during his weekly sermons.  He penned the words for Amazing Grace in 1772. Not until 1835 would William Walker set the hymn to music in the tune that is currently used today.  

It would be 34 years from the time Newton left the slave trade until he actually renounced slavery through a pamphlet he published, “Thoughts Upon The Slave Trade.”  The pamphlet shared the inhumane conditions and treatment that the enslaved faced.  In the document, Newton also apologized for waiting so long to denounce slavery. Of his actions, he reflected: “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.”  His publication was widely read and had to be reprinted several times due to demand.  At the time, Newton was also friends with English abolitionist William Wilberforce. In 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed, ending slavery in England.  

He died on December 21, 1807. In 1982, Newton was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.