Today is John Newton’s birthday. This week, I’m sure churches everywhere will sing his, “Amazing Grace,” and possibly hear the tale about the self-proclaimed wretched sinner saved by grace. While this story is most certainly true, it’s not the whole story.
Newton was born in 1725 to the merchant ship captain, John Newton Senior, and Elizabeth Scatliff. While his mother was an early influence on his religious upbringing, she died before John turned seven. When he was 11, his father took him to sea, and before the age of 18, he had accepted a lucrative position with a merchant fleet in the Mediterranean. Soon, however, he was drafted into service by the British Royal Navy where his temperament and desire to flee made him unpopular. Newton didn’t last long: he was flogged, whipped, and eventually kicked out of the Navy. It is here that he began his career as a slave trader in the infamous triangular slave trade with West Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
It is here that he began his career as a slave trader in the infamous triangular slave trade with West Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
In an ironic twist, the West African Sherbro tribe abducted Newton and made him a slave to their princess, Peye. From 1745 Newton was a personal attendant to the princess. In 1748 an English captain rescued Newton; however, the slave trader’s personal experience in captivity did little to turn him from his old ways. He was quickly back to profiting from the slave trade.
Upon being rescued, their ship was met by a fierce storm off the coast of Ireland, and while almost sinking Newton had a conversion experience. Again, one would hope that this experience would lead Newton to realize the discrepancy between a harsh slave trade and the Christian faith, but he didn’t. He would take more trips between Africa and the West before a stroke in 1754 ended his seafaring and slave trading career. He soon applied for the priesthood, but this still didn’t change his mind about the nature of his past work. In 1764 when he was made Curate in the Church of England, he not only began to write the famous “Olney Hymns” with colleague William Cowper, but he also wrote an autobiography. In his autobiography, Newton swings and misses again, describing his slave trading days as a time that taught him discipline.
In 1779, Newton began to feel the pangs of conscience, or at least write about them in his diary for the first time. Nine years later, during his time as the Rector at St. Mary’s in Woolnoth, he would eventually admit the evils of slavery and his own sin in promoting the trade. Newton confessed to his congregation:
I am bound in conscience to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent or repair the misery and mischief to which I have formally been an accessory.
In the last few years of his life, he would become an active champion for abolitionism and advisor to William Wilberforce. For this new abolitionist zeal and “Amazing Grace,” he is best known. But knowing what we do about the entirety of his life, how do we “celebrate” him? The story of John Newton helps us focus on a few crucial questions for understanding history within the church.
But knowing what we do about the entirety of his life, how do we “celebrate” him?
How do we deal with complicated and sometimes compromised characters in our collective past?
John Newton was a scoundrel, a pirate, and a slave trader. He was repeatedly kicked off various ships he was impressed upon, received beatings for his obstinacy, and was once sold into slavery himself. The point seems clear: John Newton was not a very likable character.
But punishing the dead for sins they knew they committed, and Jesus died for, can be counterproductive. If an “eye for an eye” would make the whole world blind, eliminating unsavory characters from history would remove everyone from the story.
Maybe not everyone deserves a holiday or statue, but recognizing the complexity of human capabilities for good and evil might make us all a little more compassionate.
In our current political and social milieu, there is something refreshing in hearing a public figure admit they got it wrong. There is something freeing in recognizing that people change and grow. Who knows when we might need the grace and room to do the same.
What can Newton teach us about the pitfalls of personal holiness?
This is not meant to be read as, “Why personal holiness is bad,” but rather, “How personal holiness can distort faith.” When Newton first converted during the storm off the coast of Ireland, he noted how he never again gambled, drank, or cursed. This isn’t an uncommon story, and maybe it was a necessary course correction. But the plank in Newton’s eye of trading human beings as property was conveniently overlooked in favor of the speck of dancing or gambling. His piety seemed to be a kind of personal goal setting disguised as godliness. Newton came to recognize that in obsessing over improving individual actions, he was forgetting his neighbor, both literally and across the globe. Decisions about personal holiness tend to be exactly that, personal. Newton learned there was a world outside of him that needed him more than God needed his bargaining over individual actions.
The greater the sin, the more grace abounds?
Surely we shouldn’t purposely sin as an opportunity to experience grace. Paul expects this argument in Romans 8, “Shall we sin that grace may abound! May it never be so!” (Rom 6:1) Sin is sin, but sometimes in the darkest of places, the light of grace shines all the brighter. No one wants to fall neck-deep in destructive sin (not at least once you find you’re neck-deep), but when you do, don’t be surprised if you witness the nature of grace all the more. God’s grace is abundantly deep and ridiculously cheap (free, even) such that you can’t out-sin your way of the kingdom if you tried. Your moral failures can’t match the perfect righteousness of Christ. You might hear the melody in your head as you read the words, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
Your moral failures can’t match the perfect righteousness of Christ
Unfortunately, Newton came to fame in 19th-century America when we were all too happy to look past the thorny “slave trader” part of his life and paint him one-dimensionally as a hero of the faith.
“Amazing Grace,” became a hit in a bit of irony and is a fitting coda to the rest of Newton’s story. The song was made popular during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century after Harriet Beecher Stowe referenced it in her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Since then, “Amazing Grace” has been a well-known African American spiritual. With joy and hope in the promises of Christ, the descendants of Newton’s slaves sang the song he penned before he had repented of his slave trading. But he did eventually, and for that, we can be thankful. Happy Birthday, John Newton.
For more on Newton and his context, check out: John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition by D. Bruce Hindmarsh, and The Trader, the Owner, the Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery by James Walvin.