Christians all over the world celebrate John Newton’s famous hymn Amazing Grace: How Sweet the Sound, remembering the beautiful story of the slave ship captain’s abrupt repentance. However, the story that is typically told appears to oversimplify the matter. Chapter 6 of Marcus Rediker’s excellent The Slave Ship: A Human History shares a fuller version (although perhaps to be fair it would be worth exploring an even more in-depth biography).
The son of a distant and severe father who himself was a ship captain, John was groomed by the elder Newton for command from an early age. However, early on in his seafaring career the younger Newton chose regularly and enthusiastically to fall into mischief and rebel against authority on all the ships he served—a regular “prodigal son”. This downward spiral eventually resulted in Newton’s status as being no more than a slave himself, “depressed to the lowest degree of human wretchedness.” Soon thereafter, he went “native” while in Africa, to return again to his cultural heritage a few years later.
During the resulting 1747 homeward passage, the threat of death was imminent one day when Newton was awakened by the force of a violent sea. A man not known for a reverent relationship with God, Newton surprised both himself and those around him by exclaiming to the captain after attempting repairs on this ship: “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us!” He indeed saw God’s providence in living through that particular crisis, but that did not affect his future career direction.
Once Newton became a captain, he was not particularly successful. He commanded three voyages of slave ships, none of which turned a big profit. On the first cruise (1750-1), he held mandatory religious services on board until those on board became too sick. On the one hand, because of the extent of disease and disorder, he called out for divine assistance. However, terror and torture dispensed from his hand to both sailors and slaves continue to define Newton’s life direction during this time.
During his second voyage (1752-3) Newton began to keep a spiritual diary for the purposes of bringing himself to a deep sense of his past sins and follies, to enlarge his mind, and to compose his heart to a perfect peace and charity with all mankind. In his prayers, he understood that death was the nature of the business, asking God only to help him to be ready to embrace it. However, self-deception continued to reign as -- like all slave ship captains of the day-- he ruled supreme over “the captain’s own little private hell.”
During the third voyage (1753-4), Newton’s journal entries turned more and more to his spiritual life and less to the daily transactions of the ship. Afterward, when he was within two days of sailing off on his fourth voyage, an apoplectic stroke led him to leave the slave trade altogether. Newton wrote that “it pleased God to stop me by illness”. This forced retirement was not by choice, as Rediker duly notes.
Back in 1752 (2nd voyage), Newton had written a letter to a friend which reminds one of the lyrics of Amazing Grace he would not write for another 21 years. He wrote that he once was lost, “ a depraved unhappy apostate, but now was “found” as the Christian master of a slave ship. A year later he explained how God brought him out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, from slavery and famine on the coast of Africa to his present situation. However, in the words of Rediker, the reality of that particular situation was to share “a small wooden world with 87 men, women, and children whom he was carrying through the Middle Passage into even deeper bondage.” At the time of that proclamation Newton may have escaped from Egypt, but the truth that he was working for Pharaoh was evidently lost on him (p. 186).
It would be more than 3 decades before Newton eventually came out to declare himself against the slave trade. God’s grace and long-suffering patience with people like Newton (and you and me!) is truly amazing, isn’t it?