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11 November 2022

Thomas Wynne: Amazing Grace: How a hymn was born from a life redeemed

Saturday 30 March 2024 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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Thomas Wynne: Amazing Grace:  How a hymn was  born from a life  redeemed
John Newton was an English evangelical Anglican cleric and slavery abolitionist.

Amazing Grace, that saved a wretch like me – such an amazing grace to us all, is captured so beautifully in a song so many of us would have sung at one time in our lives, writes Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.

But how many of us know the story and life behind the hymn and the life of slave ship captain, and the slavery he profited from and in the end would strongly campaign against until its end in England in 1807.

John Newton was heavily involved in the slave trade. At a young age Newton was forced into the Royal Navy and went to sea working on slave ships and in 1745 at the age of 20, he was captured and became a slave himself.

When he was later rescued, despite now knowing what it was to be a slave, he returned again to sea and the slave trade once more, becoming the captain of several slave ships. Then three years later, as a slave trader, Newton was travelling from Africa to Liverpool and got caught on a torrent of a storm.

The storm was so severe that Newton, in the midst of it all, cried out to a God he had largely ignored. Though his life seemed far from God, he found himself asking for mercy, despite being involved in a trade enslaved by the love of money and the root and evil of that tree.

God heard his prayers and despite the storm, the ship did safely reach Ireland marking the beginning of Newton’s journey to God and that hymn through his grace.

Although he remained in the slave trade for another six years, as he began reading the Bible, his hardened heart towards God and towards his fellow men began to melt under the grace he began to experience so deeply in his heart.

John Newton finally left the slave trade and trained to be a Priest, being ordained in the Church of England in 1764. Newton became the curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he began to write hymns with poet William Cowper. “Amazing Grace” was written to accompany a sermon on New Year’s Day of 1773 and was based on 1 Chronicles 17, especially verses 16 and 17.

It wasn’t until 1788, 34 years after his retirement from the slave trade, that Newton finally found the courage to break the chains of the slave trade over his life and his nation and began to advocate against the slave trade industry and legislation. Joining forces with other abolitionists, he lived to see the Slave Trade Act in 1807, passed into law, after many of years of supporting anti-slavery campaigns with Christian abolitionist and MP William Wilberforce.

Newton’s life demonstrates to us all, that it is because of his love for us, poured out and unconditional, that draws us back more and more as we grow in years. That as we understand deeper our own brokenness, as the reflection of that broken mirror becomes more familiar, so does his grace towards us also.

And despite the years accumulating in our lives – and so many more reasons for God to not love us, yet he does. Despite our guilt and shame, despite our broken lives, despite all we hide and hold close, he loves us anyways and found in the words of that great hymnal, Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

We can imagine Newton looking back at the thousands of lives he shackled, he humiliated, profited from and controlled until he realised his own shackles and lack of control confronted also by his own broken life that also had a price for its freedom.

And facing a storm, as many of us do, in the face of certain death, he found a God who loved him and demonstrated his love, from slave owner to slave protestor, slave ship captain to priest, and a love and message of hope through Jesus –the deepest revelation of God’s grace and love for us, who paid the price for Newton’s and our freedom by his life, death and resurrection, and the reason we celebrate Easter.