Amazing Grace: The True Story... Really!!

Have you heard the story of the hymn “Amazing Grace”? Of course you have! It goes something like this: John Newton was an atheistic or agnostic captain of a slave ship in the 1700's. During a particularly difficult voyage with a cargo full of slaves, he cried out to God to save him. God did, and, upon reaching land, he kissed the sand on the beach and wrote the hymn he titled “Amazing Grace” (possibly in the sand itself). Newton became a Christian, renounced his involvement in the slave trade, and became a pastor, leading many to Christ.

It's a dramatic story that has a smattering of truth, but it's not exactly accurate. The truth is that John Newton was quite literate and wrote about his life and voyages, so it is not difficult to separate reality from dramatic fiction. Here is the true story, fact by fact.

1. Dramatic, but not necessarily true story detail:
John Newton was an atheist or agnostic in the 1700's.

True story:
Born in London, he lived from 1725 to 1807. He had some religious training from his mother, but she died of tuberculosis in 1732 when John was seven years old. His father remarried and sent John away to school. Later, John chose to follow in his father's footsteps as a sailor. After putting to sea, Newton describes himself as falling into a life of "degrading debauchery", and ignores the religious training of his early years.

2. Dramatic, but not necessarily true story detail:
He was the captain of a slave ship.

True story:
John Newton began his profession the way everyone begins: at the bottom. He took odd jobs on ships, and often got in trouble for overstaying his shore leave. At one point he abandoned his ship, only to return in disgrace a few days later. His youth and his wandering spirit made it difficult for him to hold a job, even on a ship that is at sea most of the time. He eventually signed on with a slave ship captain by the name of Clow, but he was not treated well. John wrote an appeal to his father, who had some influence in the sailing industry of the day, and he was then given permission to work under a different captain, Mr. Williams, who treated him better. The new ship was called the Greyhound and it did not trade in slaves, but in gold, ivory, beeswax, and dyer’s wood. (Later in his life Newton did become a ship’s captain, but this is after the conversion story, so I am getting ahead of myself.)

3. Dramatic, but not necessarily true story detail:
During a particularly difficult voyage with a cargo full of slaves, he cried out to God to save him.

True story:
As we said, his ship, The Greyhound, did not have slaves, but traded in other goods. It was while on board the Greyhound that a storm of amazing proportions happened and Newton was afraid for his life. The Greyhound was at sea for nearly a year, landing port to port to trade. Newton spent his time on board making himself disliked by the crew. He derided anyone who had a Christian faith, even shocking experienced sailors with his blaspheming oaths.

Eventually, the Greyhound tried to make its way home to Liverpool. This trip was across the Atlantic from the tip of Brazil to Newfoundland Banks (on the coast of Canada today), and then re-crossing the Atlantic, a journey of seven thousand miles without landfall. One of the few books on board was 'The Christian's Pattern' by Stanhope, which was based on Thomas a Kempis's 'The Imitation of Christ.' Newton began reading this book. Three months into the journey, a severe westerly wind was in progress. In the night, Newton was awakened by water flooding into his cabin, and he heard cries above that the ship was sinking. People were washed overboard, and the ship was damaged. Here are Newton's own words about the storm:

The sea had torn away the upper timbers on one side, and made the ship a mere wreck in a few minutes... Taking all the circumstances, it was astonishing, and almost miraculous that any of us survived to relate the story. We had recourse to the pumps; but the water increased against our efforts... We had but eleven or twelve people to sustain this service; and, notwithstanding all we could do, she was full, or very near it: and then, with a common cargo, she must have sunk of course; but we had a great quantity of bees wax and wood on board, which were specifically lighter than the water...

It was during this storm that Newton found faith in God deep inside. He said:

'The extraordinary turns in my life; the calls, warnings, and deliverances I had met with... about six in the evening (I heard) that the ship was freed from water, there rose a gleam of hope. I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour; I began to pray.”

But the end of the storm and the saving of the ship is not the end of the story. Most of the food had washed away, and the crew began to starve on the severe rations that were left. To make matters worse, the ship was now in a dead spot with little wind. Trying to make the rations last became ever more difficult because the dead air made the trip extend beyond the ordinary. For almost a month the ship sat in the ocean, inching along. When the crew put the very last of the rations in the pot, a prayer of desperation went up by everyone, including Newton. A rushing wind came up and blew the crippled Greyhound to port within just a few days.

A stained glass window depicting the Greyhound, in Olney, Buckinghamshire, U.K.

4. Dramatic, but not necessarily true story detail:God did (rescue him), and, upon reaching land, he kissed the sand on the beach and wrote the hymn he titled “Amazing Grace” (possibly in the sand itself). Newton became a Christian, renounced his involvement in the slave trade, and became a pastor, leading many to Christ.

True story:
It is worth mentioning that in Ireland, Newton had another miraculous escape from death. He had been involved in a shooting party with the mayor of Londonderry. As he climbed a bank, the gun he was carrying discharged close to his face, destroying a corner of his hat, but missing Newton's person altogether.

At this point, it was 1748, and John Newton was only 23. His father died in a swimming accident one day before John made it home to London. When he got back to London, he made such a good impression with his father's cohorts that he was offered the position of captain of another ship. Newton declined, citing a lack of experience, so he became first mate of the slave ship 'Brownlow' under a Captain Hardy. There was a mutiny among some of the slaves, and a crew member was killed. The rest of the crew fired, killing about four unarmed Africans. The mutineers were also punished severely. The Brownlow had lost 62 out of its 218 slaves when it finally arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. Newton might have found God, but as of yet, he had few doubts about his occupation.

Upon returning to London, Newton was able to drum up the courage to ask a young lady he had been courting off and on to marry him. She refused once, but then accepted the second time. In 1750, John Newton and Mary Catlett (who he called Polly) married. Married life did not keep him home, however. He finally believed he had enough experience to be a captain, so in August of 1750, the newlywed sailed as captain of the 'Duke of Argyll.' He was in charge of 30 sailors and was determined to set a good example. As a Christian and a newly married man, he drank nothing stronger than water, kept the slave women safe from sailors (on many voyages in other ships, sailors were encouraged to rape the female slaves because pregnant slaves were more valuable), and even abstained from eating meat. The below decks, where the slaves were kept, were ordered to be cleaned regularly. A mutiny occurred on this voyage, and Newton punished the mutineers with thumbscrews, but not death. During the voyage, he had to bury only six slaves at sea.

A log listing of John Newton’s voyage as captain of the slave ship "The African" in 1752.

After that voyage, he captained a new ship called 'The African' to St. Kitts in the Caribbean. Trading was slow, and Newton managed to capture only 87 slaves for the voyage across the Atlantic. But while in St. Kitts, Newton met Alexander Clunie, a Christian sailor who was not involved in the Triangle Trade. Clunie managed to disciple Newton in his faith, and also introduce Newton to some important people back in London and Liverpool who could help him venture further down the road of Christian faith. Newton befriended George Whitefield and gave up seafaring forever. He also met and admired John Wesley, founder of Methodism. While on one of his last journeys, Newton learned Hebrew, Greek and Latin from books that he had brought along.

Map of the triangle trade, which Newton knew quite well.

John Newton wanted to become a minister and applied for ordination but was refused. Never one to be put off, he persisted and was eventually ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln. He preached in Olney, and under his leadership, the church grew so much it had to expand its building. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled in Olney, and he and Newton became close friends. They began to hold weekly prayer meetings and made it a goal to write a new hymn for each prayer meeting. Newton eventually ended up writing 280 hymns that we know of, and Cowper wrote 68. These hymns were published in 1779 in a book called Olney Hymns. “Amazing Grace” was one of the hymns in this volume, as were other hymns that are still sung today such as "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds," and "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken."

“Amazing Grace” was composed sometime between 1760 and 1770 and did not originally have a title at all. It was probably one of the first hymns attempted for the weekly prayer meetings. Through the years other writers have composed additional verses to “Amazing Grace”, and some people speculate that verses from other Newton hymns have also been added. However, there are six stanzas that appeared in the first edition of the hymn book in 1779, and those same six stanzas appeared again with minor spelling variations in the 1808 edition, one year after Newton died. The hymnal referenced 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 and carried the heading "Faith's Review and Expectation."
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

The melody John Newton used with these stanzas is unknown. The melody we use today is an early American folk melody, and some people speculate, ironically, that the tune we use in modern days may have originated as the tune of a slave work song.

A copy of "Amazing Grace" out of a modern hymnal. Note the different sixth verse from that which was printed in the "Olney Hymns" published within Newton’s lifetime.

As an afterthought, the true story, I think, is much more dramatic than the sugarcoated, glossy one told to many congregations right before an invitation is given to receive Christ. Here is a man who had a true conversion experience, but was not perfect afterward. He did not immediately renounce his former life of sin, but worked out his own salvation the way we all get to do: through a series of events that led him to the right people, discipleship, study, and eventually, he found his calling in pastorship. As despicable as the slave trade was, it was a living and an adventure for John Newton, and he wasn't so quick to give it up as he should have been. But I cannot blame him, because I often have lesser excuses than a paycheck when I sin. It is also interesting that “Amazing Grace” was just one of many, many hymns John Newton wrote. So many times I want to make a masterpiece, and if it doesn't turn out on the first, second, or third try, then I am likely to give up. But John Newton's masterpiece is just 1/280th of his published songwriting output, and Lord knows how many of his songs were never finished or published.

John Newton’s true story serves as an example of persisting in faith and growing as a disciple. John Newton not only continued to sail after his conversion, he also continued in the slave trade because he wasn’t born again, fully mature in Christ from the moment of conversion aboard the Greyhound. The glossy, sugarcoated version of his story is often cited as an example that there is no one too far away from God to be saved. But the true story is an example of God’s ability to “meet us where we are,” even if we are not in the “right” place we should be.

A stained glass window in Olney Parish Church. For our article about stained glass, click here.


George A Cawood said...

I had heard another version where after the mutiny the captain became furious and threw john overboard them harpooned him and pulled him back aboard, then turned him over to a slave to be cared for. After being healed he was slave to a slave where he learned humility and turned to God. Has anyone else heard this and is this yrue?

Unknown said...

Right because the best way to teach they're (at the time) fellow white brother humility is to make them a slave to a slave... Which in turn would later encourage him to Turn to God... But the African Man/Woman would still be a slave... So it is Gods will for this man to Become Humble and For The African to be a Slave???

Aisha Jones said...

Right. I'm not so sure that clarifying the story--making it more accurate--did anything for me. All that comes across is the fact that this man was a horrible human being--if we dare call him that--as were any others who "participated in the slave trade." My quotations are there to highlight the fact that the is a BS term used to distance oneself from the reality of what was happening--black and brown human beings of all ages were being tortured, abused, raped, murdered, mutilated, separated, humiliated, and traumatized as a matter of course because of the greed, immaturity, immorality, tyranny, lewdness, selfishness, and evil spirit of white men. This was "the slave trade."

And yes, i believe the author when he says he can understand why Newton made his living abusing others. Those same traits must reside within him as well. Because I would never continue to subjugate, torture, rape, and exploit others to line my pockets. This is the white man's economic theory, not mine.