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Amazing Grace

30 November, 1999

Conall Ó Cuinn SJ tells the story of John Newton, who was involved in the slave trade, but had an experience of the mercy of God. He became a preacher and composed the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Albert Finney plays the part in the recent film of the same name.

Everybody knows the hymn, Amazing Grace, but few know who wrote it. Recently at a funeral, a mourner near the front of the church stood up and moved to the back where a group of musicians were gathered. She sang Amazing Grace in a beautifully clear and controlled voice.

A sailor’s story
I met her afterwards and asked her was she a trained singer. She turned out to be Maria Conway, one of the The Conway Sisters, a Sligo group who lasted a whole series on the ITV’s talent show, The X Factor. I asked her if she knew anything about the author. She did not, and so I briefly told the story of the sailor and later preacher, John Newton (1725-1807) who wrote the words back in the mid-1700s after having already come at sea ‘through many dangers, toils, and snairs’.

Newton would certainly understand from his experience how God does protect sailors, and how traumatic experiences at sea can be the occasion to an opening out to amazing grace.

Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far 
and grace will lead me home. 

Harsh experiences 
Newton went to sea with his sea captain father at the young age of eleven shortly after his mother died. By the time he quit the sea at the age of twenty-nine, he had already been captain of his own ship and had dealt in the slave trade on many journeys across the Atlantic. He had known both success and disaster. For a whole year he even found himself as a slave in appalling conditions. At seventeen while journeying to meet Mary Catlett, a girl whom he intended to marry, John fell into the hands of a press gang and was forced into service as a midshipman on a man-of-war, named the Harwich. He attempted an escape but was captured, clapped in irons, brought back to the ship, publicly stripped, whipped, and demoted to the level of common seaman. As a demoted official, his fellow sailors treated him very badly.

Such experiences left him bitter both towards people and towards God. He actually enjoyed undermining the faith of others and relished debunking their faith in the Bible. He considered himself a freethinker, not answerable for what he believed or how he lived. As far as he was concerned, he did not believe in God and did all he could to bring others into the drinking, carousing and recklessness of the way of life he had adopted. 

A wretch saved
Disaster struck on the night of 9 March 1748 while they were sailing in the cold waters of Newfoundland before making the journey back home across the North Atlantic. John awoke to find the ship had been hit by a huge wave and was taking in water through a gaping hole in the side. It seemed that nothing could be done to save it. They managed to nail some boards over the hole and caulk the leaks with their own clothes.

At the end of a day of pumping, John found himself saying out loud, ‘If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us!’ Shocked at his own words, he wondered what was happening. Was he losing his mind? And a new question arose which was to occupy him for months: ‘What mercy can there be for me? Could a wretch like me be saved?’

The ship limped its way towards home. Cold and hunger were now their greatest enemies and they knew that the next storm would finish them off. During the long hours of waiting, John began to remember in detail his shady past. What he saw revolted him and he wondered if there were any hope for him. The lines of Psalm 31 expressed what he was feeling: ‘I am forgotten like a dead man out of mind; I am like a broken vessel.’ But in the darkness of his despair, he began, to his surprise to find light, especially as he read the Gospels.

Another storm arose with another hole in the side of the ship, which meant that if the wind changed direction and they had to tack, the boat would fill with water. They were blown far off course to the north, but finally on 8 April 1748, two months after the first disaster, the ship crawled into Lough Swilly in Co. Donegal, just before another storm, which would certainly have finished them off.

The Gospel image that spoke to John now was of the Prodigal Father (Lk. 15) who runs to embrace his wayward and homecoming son. John Newton had returned home spiritually, but soon realized it was only the beginning of a new journey of spiritual catch-up.

He had much to unlearn and learn about God (don’t we all?). God had a lot of re-moulding to do; John’s damaged character had to healed and to be built up slowly. But this time John was aware of grace at work. He knew God’s goodness and despite his fickleness, he trusted that God was on his side. Living out of hope, and putting aside temptations of despair he could write,

The Lord has promised good to me?
His word my hope secures.

Still he was not ready to let go of the sea. He continued to be involved in the slave trade, but with a growing distaste for what was then a socially acceptable means of livelihood. He married his dear Mary Catlett, and finally gave up his life at sea to become, not without great opposition, a very effective preacher in the Church of England.

His preaching attracted large crowds. He would teach the congregation one newly composed song each week, and one of the 280 hymns he composed was Amazing Grace, though sung to a different air to the one we know.
Grace had led John Newton all those wayward years, though he was not aware of it. Even fear showed itself to be a grace:

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved.

And with the blossoming of faith, he now began to appreciate God’s continual gift of grace.

How precious did that grace appear?
The hour I first believed.

End of slavery
Now John Newton, instead of being a source of downfall for others, began to influence others not just to change, but also to bring about great change in world affairs. He was one of those who influenced William Wilberforce (1759-1833) in the fight for the abolition of slavery, and is seen in the new film, Amazing Grace, released earlier this year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the date the British Parliament voted to ban the slave trade.

There could have been no transatlantic slave trade without the development of large sail ships and new methods of navigation. Sailors and captains crewed those ships. But the gradual realization of the indignity and evil of slavery also happened at sea. Through the story of John Newton, we can see that God uses the ups and down of sea life, to bring about great growth in the relationship between peoples.

Ironically, John Newton died physically blind, but accepted this cross happily and could sing even louder:

I was blind, but now I see.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.