Amazing Grace

“Was blind, but now I see” – the life of Pastor John Newton

How does a person go from serving as the captain of a ship carrying enslaved men, women, and children to a social justice activist who helped inspire the end of the British role in the international slave trade? 

John Newton lived during the height of the British international slave trade – when the entire economy of the British Isles was predicated on the capture and sale of human beings from the African continent. His life was enmeshed and dependent upon this inhumane practice. Even after Newton experienced what he called his “conversion” to Christianity in 1749, he remained in positions benefitting from the slave trade for several years. Turning against the practice of slavery meant turning away from his own economic prosperity, and the capitalist system he built his prosperity upon. 

Newton’s conversion led him to study theology and eventually be ordained in the Church of England. At the time of his ordination he confessed: “Custom, example, and [commercial interest has blinded my eyes.” These words would later mark the first verse of the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, which he wrote while a priest at his first church, 

When Newton became the minister at a prominent church in London, he was able to use his pulpit to influence some of the most powerful leaders in Britain and he began to use his influence to open more eyes to the inhumanity and immorality of the slave trade. His own experience in the slave trade informed his preaching and advocacy on the topic. Newton had a particular influence on the prime minister, William Pitt, and parliamentarian William Wilberforce. Newton’s Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, along with the efforts of Pitt and Wilberforce, inspired the first unsuccessful vote at parliament to end the British role in the slave trade in 1789. Continued advocacy would eventually end the practice in 1807. 

“Newton’s life shows us that all of us carry some kind of blindness we were born into, or inherited from our culture, or have been trained to think and believe.”

Newton’s life shows us that all of us carry some kind of blindness we were born into, or inherited from our culture, or have been trained to think and believe. The Jesus that saves us is the Jesus who opens our eyes and wakes us up to the truth and gift that we are all one. We are all connected. We are all precious. We are all keepers of one another.

Even after his conversion to Christianity, it took years for Newton to fully understand the evils of the slave trade and his own complicity with it. As William E. Phipps writes in the article, “‘Amazing Grace’ the hymnwriters life”: “The amazing thing is that he did acquire a clearer perspective during his lifetime and worked zealously to reverse the evil that he and others had done… Newton came to see that “wretches” needed to be saved from treating black people as property to be exploited to increase WASP wealth.”

Seeing with new eyes, waking up to the truth are precious experiences and urgently needed in a world that can be swayed by distortions, hate-generated half-truths, and outright lies. Conversion doesn’t happen overnight, but rather, is the result of a lifetime of learning, growing, and an opening of our eyes and hearts to the needs of our holy family throughout the world.