I’m sure you know the hymn Amazing Grace. Almost everybody does, especially in America, where it is the country’s best-known hymn. Just this week Sports Illustrated reported that Amazing Grace was played at the funeral of the NFL football player and war hero Pat Tillman. If you know the hymn, you may also know that it was written by the English preacher John Newton. And if you know that, you probably also know that Newton was a slave trader, and that the hymn partly reflects his work in that infamous industry.
But you may not know the whole story, or even the real story. For example, most people assume that one of the first things Newton did after becoming a Christian was to abandon the slave trade, when in fact he continued to traffic in human beings for some time afterwards, and it wasn’t until much later that he became an abolitionist. You might also think that Newton’s conversion happened in a single moment, especially since in the hymn he speaks of “the hour” he “first believed.” However, it took many years for Newton to come to true saving faith in Jesus Christ. So what’s the real story behind Amazing Grace?
In the hymn’s opening stanza, and in some of his other writings, Newton refers to himself as a “wretch.” This word describes his whole life outside of Christ, including his sinful involvement in slavery. However, it especially refers to his sufferings on Plantain Island, just off the coast of Africa. Newton had gone to work for a slave trader. But while the man was off the island, Newton became ill. At first the master’s wife, who was an African princess, took care of his needs. But after a while she subjected Newton to cruel forms of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. In the words of one biographer, he became “a sunken-cheeked, bent, thin, disheveled, blistered, filthy, barefooted, half-naked man crawling across the sand in search of food and living in fear of punishment and ridicule” [Steve Turner, Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 29]. In later years Newton referred to those wretched days as “that state of misery on the coast of Africa into which my wickedness had plunged me” [Newton, quoted in Turner, p. 29].
Newton’s deliverance from the wretchedness of his sin came later, and it was a long, slow process. He had been exposed to the gospel many times before, but he became more serious about his spiritual condition during a violent winter storm on the North Atlantic, when he was awakened by the frantic screams of his fellow sailors. The man next to him was swept overboard, some of the upper timbers were torn away from the ship, and Newton—fearing that God would not forgive him—began to pray for mercy. This was “the hour he first believed.” However, it was only the beginning. He soon realized his inability to live up to the perfect standard of God’s law; he needed a deeper repentance. Two years later, during another long bout with fever, Newton gave his life to God in more complete surrender.
Both in the years before he became a Christian, and afterwards, God preserved John Newton from “many dangers, toils, and snares.” He was thrown from a horse and nearly impaled. He was late for a ride on a riverboat that sank, claiming the lives of all its passengers. He suffered the black despair of living below decks in the Royal Navy. On one occasion he was nearly lost in the jungle. Another time he was unexpectedly recalled from a rowing expedition that came to a tragic end. And there was the snare of the slave trade itself. Eventually Newton saw its true evil, but like many other Christians, the hardest sins for him to recognize were the ones that were the most deeply ingrained into his surrounding culture.
These are some of the experiences that John Newton must have had in mind when he wrote his famous hymn many years later. Newton had been raised on the evangelical hymns of Isaac Watts, and during his years as a pastor he became a prolific hymn writer in his own right. Amazing Grace was first sung on January 1, 1773, after Newton had been reflecting on twenty-five years of walking by grace, and in connection with his New Year’s Day sermon on a text from King David: “Who am I that thou hast brought me hitherto?” (1 Chron. 17:16-17; KJV).
One of the strange things about Amazing Grace is that it does not explicitly mention Jesus Christ or the gospel facts about his crucifixion and resurrection. This is somewhat unfortunate, because it means that many people sing Amazing Grace without properly relating it to the Christian gospel. No doubt this is one of the reasons the hymn remains so popular: everybody wants grace, and in the absence of any clear statement about where it comes from, people can use the hymn to express their own ideas about grace, including many that are not Christian at all. The important thing to know about true saving grace is that it only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. John Newton knew this, of course, but in his hymn he more assumes than asserts it.
But while the hymn can be faulted in some areas, it is strong in others. In later years, through his study of Scripture and his own experience of God’s work in his life, Newton became a convinced Calvinist. Thus, in its present form, Amazing Grace makes a strong assertion of the sovereignty of God’s grace. However, this was all the more true of the original version, which included a verse that has rarely been sung since 19th-century revivalists decided to downplay the doctrine of election:
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
Here Newton affirms the doctrines of effectual calling and the perseverance of the saints. The same divine grace that called him to faith in Christ would also keep him in Christ to the end. Such grace is truly grace, because it means that from beginning to end, our salvation is all from God. And this is really something to sing about. As Newton wrote in one of his pastoral letters, “I believe our hearts are all alike, destitute of every good, and prone to every evil. Like money from the same mint, they bear the same impression of total depravity. But grace makes a difference, and grace deserves the praise” [Newton, quoted in Turner, p. xxv].
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