Amazing Grace; the story of John Newton who wrote one of the most loved hymns.

The first thing anyone will notice about your vessel is the smell of death, desperation and suffering. You’re the captain of a slave ship sailing the middle passage. 

You set sail in merry old England to trade the fruits of the emerging industrial revolution. Your business partners in West Africa will pay you with black gold; slaves. Your cargo hold has several platforms where people lie in densely packed rows. It’s a number’s game. They will die like flies down in the hold. To turn a profit, you need to have enough left when you reach your destination and so you pack them tight. In America, you sell the slaves and buy sugar, molasses, rum, tobacco, cotton and other colonial goods that will fetch premium prices back in England. You and your financiers will make a killing. Your crew will not. So many poor people try to survive in England, there is no reason to pay extravagant wages. Selfishness creates the wealth of nations, says Adam Smith. And that is the problem with the new world. They do not have enough poor people desperate enough to work the plantations. There is a labor shortage. And to get cheap labor, you enslave black people from Africa. 

Sea voyages are dangerous. Your gaze goes to the horizon. A storm is brewing, but you’re a salty sea-dog who has weathered many storms. But this gale seems to be unleashed by the devil himself. It is his personal invitation for you to join him at a dance on the bottom of the ocean. It is the worst night of your life. Towering waves break and wash over your deck. The rigging creaks and moans. The ship is in pain and it sounds as if it wants to die. Then a crack. The top mast goes. It’s ripped clear off and it flies away like a bird. Suddenly, you realize, you have never felt panic this profound before. No more salty sea-dog, but you cry like a baby and wet your pants. You fall down on your knees and you pray to God for mercy. And, surprise, that seems to do something. The angry sea reaches for you, but it does not end your earthly existence. God has mercy on your soul.

This night will be the most consequential night of your life. It takes a while until you understand how amazing God’s grace is. In this stormy night, God did not take your life, despite of what you did to the people you routinely crammed into your cargo hold. You dragged the innocent into hell and sold them like cattle to the highest bidder to be abused and exploited. Slowly you realize if there was no hell, for the captain of a slave ship, it needed to be invented. Hell is what you deserve after what you have done. It takes years for your fledging conscience to mature, but eventually you turn your life around and you become an Anglican clergyman. The rest of your life you spend repenting for the evil you have done and you become one of Britain’s leading abolitionists. But whatever you do, you know you can’t make right what you did wrong. All that saves you from hell is God’s grace. And then you write a hymn to express your hope and trust in God’s amazing grace. 

Your name is John Newton, you lived from 1725 to 1806 and the hymn you write is one of the most beloved and most sung church hymns of all times: “Amazing Grace.” 

John Newton put his repentance, his shame and his guilt into words. He confessed that he was blind, but when he finally saw, it was only God’s grace that could save a wretch like him. Amazing Grace sings about the redemption of a slave ship captain, who was an agent of evil and an angel of death. May God have mercy on all who make this world a living hell. 

Olaf Baumann writes a column for the Peninsula Daily News once a month. The column was published on May 19, 2023. Link to the online article: https://www.peninsuladailynews.com/life/issues-of-faith-amazing-grace/

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