John Newton was an 18th century Anglican clergyman and the author of the immensely popular hymn Amazing Grace.
The Reverend Newton is also the subject of a new biography by Jonathan Aitkens entitled “John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.” Although some take exception to Newton’s Calvinistic reference to himself as a “wretch” in the opening verse of the hymn, Aitkens graphically recounts that the young Newton was indeed a shameful slave trader complicit in five brutal trans-Atlantic crossings from Africa’s Gold Coast to America’s southern shores.
Newton was certainly not alone is accepting the slave trade as simply part of European commerce. He failed for most of his young years to confront the horror of exporting and importing human beings. It took a near-death experience during a shipwreck to bring young Newton to his senses and rekindle the Christian faith of his childhood. Newton left the slave trade, studied diligently and extensively, and was finally after “many dangers, toils and snares” ordained to the Anglican ministry. The Reverend Newton was an effective parish curate, a popular hymnist, and an insightful spiritual counselor (as well as a happily married man). But Newton’s greatest contribution to Western history might have been the guidance and support he offered to the young William Wilberforce, who was finally successful, after a generation of attempts, in convincing Britain to ban the slave trade altogether.
The Reverend Newton sat in the midst of the British parliament and recounted before the membership the atrocities that he witnessed and sometimes inflicted during his five trans-Atlantic voyages.
Two-hundred and twenty-five Africans were usually crowded into a slave ship; on an average 75 died during the crossing. No regard was given to family units. Once a crying baby was snatched from its mother’s arms and tossed into the sea. Limbs would be chopped off as a punishment for the unruly and as a lesson for the unsure. Newton also related the hardness that crept into the British crewmen who shared these violent crossings. More than 1,500 seamen died a year, according to Newton, the victims of rebellious slaves, unruly crewman or harsh captains. In 1807, Parliament faced facts and banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Slavery itself would not be banned until the 1830s in England, the 1860s in the United States.
John Newton and the members of Parliament and the British public and most of the white man’s world were not horrid, wicked, cruel persons. In spite of religious divisions, Europe was a Christian society. The trouble was that 18th century man simply did not think of the carnage that was being promoted by the accepted commerce of the day. The enduring slave trade was not the result of ill will; it was the result of ignorance — and profit.
Two hundred years from now some author will analyze how the sophisticated society of our 21st century could tolerate the dreadfulness of abortion, the lunacy of reproductive experimentation, the arrogance of re-defining marriage, the frequency of divorce, the irresponsibility of cohabitation, the menace of pornography, the neglect of worship, the inequality of goods, and an accumulation of other evils that modern man takes for granted. Contemporary society is not irredeemably evil any more than Newton’s countrymen were inherently vicious. But like Newton’s politicians and public, men and women today need a wake-up call, a warning, a witness to go before society and recount first-hand the abuses that ignorance and indifference shield from the headlines.
Twenty-first century man has little idea of how abortion and contraception have hardened the hearts of women and men toward new life. Twenty-first century man gives no thought to how the individualistic re-definition of marriage will affect generations to come. Twenty-first century man does not give a thought as to how the neglect of worship, religion, the Sabbath and the spirit will shape future generations.
The non-judgmental attitude of modern man, especially toward crimes committed against life and family, is defended as tolerance when it should be vilified as ignorance. What shipwreck will return our society to its Christian roots? What amazing grace will allow a generation that is lost and blind to be found and to see?