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Happy Birthday “Amazing Grace” Guy

July 24, 2016


John Newton was born on this day in 1725 [OS].  He was by far the most famous of all penitent slavers.  He it was, of course, who wrote most of the Olney Hymns (1779) and who befriended and supported William Cowper.  He was an important source and support for the late eighteenth-century anti-slavery movement.

He did not, of course, write the tune.  That stirring theme beloved of massed pipe bands was not Newton’s.  The exquisite melancholy of Scottie piping adieu to Spock’s coffin at the end of Wrath of Khan (1982) was not the work of the gnarly old maritime preacher.

The tune – or something like the tune – had been knocking around under the title of “New Britain”, before it was crafted into a shape that would better fit Newton’s words by one William Walker in the mid nineteenth century.

Now here’s a strange thing.  William Walker was a Baptist singing-master from South Carolina (near Spartanburg).  It seems a practical impossibility that Walker could have been anything other than – pro-slavery.  There were no (white) anti-slavery composers in South Carolina in the 1850s.  Now what did Walker think he was doing?

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’twas Grace that taught,
my heart to fear.
And grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come.
’tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead us home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
as long as life endures.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
than when we first begun.

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.

Of course, it is context that fastens the words of this hymn to an anti-slavery movement.  The recent rather timid and self-righteous movie about William Wilberforce takes “Amazing Grace” as its title.  But oddly enough, John Newton’s own salvation narrative makes it clear that the recognition of his own state of sinfulness had nothing to do with his being a slaver.  Newton’s autobiographical  An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable And Interesting Particulars in the Life of ——  establishes that his sense that the transatlantic slave trade might be “sinful” in some way shape or form – postdates his conversion experience.  He had other, more personal (and we would say infinitely more venial) sins that he sensed were dragging him beneath the waves to a briny Hell.  (Newton, like  Cowper, recognised that maritime imagery is very convenient for framing spiritual discourses).

So, together, a slaver who took a while to figure out that slaving was wrong and a South Carolinian who probably never figured it out, created a hymn that’s become synonymous with the anti-slavery struggle.

The very first people to sing these words to the tune we know would have been convinced that slavery was wise and good, and part of God’s just scheme for the universe.

Funny how things turn out.


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