Isolation diary: Telling the story of ‘Amazing Grace’

The tune of Amazing Grace has been running through my head all week. We have been singing it with the Great British Home Chorus, along with We Shall Overcome, as a tribute to Black Lives Matter. At least I think that is why Gareth Malone chose the song, assuming that it is a gospel song which can trace its origins back to black churches in the Southern States. Nothing he said suggested that he knew the real story behind the lyrics.

As far as the music is concerned, he referred to “this traditional American melody”, and indeed the beautiful tune we use today is called New Britain and was already in use in churches across America before it was matched with the words in 1835. Its name implies that it may have had origins in Britain, but I can’t find any definitive roots in my exhaustive searches through Wikipedia.

Once the lyric and tune had combined to give the song we all know today, it became very popular across all Christian traditions, although it works particularly well in gospel style. But I wonder how many people who sing it today appreciate the poignancy of the text.

The shocking thing is that John Newton, who wrote the original words, was a slave trader.

Newton was born in London in 1725 and lived a pretty colourful life before writing the hymn in his 50s. He started out in the Navy, then was disciplined for deserting to visit the love of his life, Polly, and subsequently sent to work on a slave ship. He was a rebellious and foul-mouthed young man and at one stage was himself chained up with the slaves and forced to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone.

By the time he was 30 he had married Polly and had crewed on many slave ship voyages. On one of those journeys he survived a violent storm, shouting “Lord have mercy upon us”, which led him to explore the tenets of Christianity. However, he did not reject slavery at that time and carried on with his trade for several more years. He claimed that his real conversion to the faith, and his repudiation of slavery, came several years later.

Finally he became ill, retired from the sea and settled down with his family in England. He was ordained and became a curate in Olney, where he wrote Amazing Grace as well as many other hymns. He later became an active abolitionist and wrote a pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade in which he wrote: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

I was reminded of John Newton’s story when, as part of the current debate about statues, I read that some anger was being directed towards Gladstone, whose family fortune had been amassed from slavery. As Iain Donaldson points out Gladstone’s views changed through his life; by the age of 40 he was already describing slavery as: “by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind in any Christian or pagan country.”

The Black Lives Matter campaign focuses on educating people about systemic racism and on changing hearts and minds. It would be ironic if we do not accept and celebrate the fact that people can and do change. People like Newton and Gladstone.





Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Paul Murray 13th Jun '20 - 6:14pm

    Newton’s monument at St. Mary Woolnoth – where he served as rector – is well worth seeing for those in the area of Bank underground station, and it’s a fine Hawksmoor church in its own right. It’s also familiar to some through its mention in Eliot’s “The Wasteland” where he says that office workers flowed past it and “Each man fixed his eyes before his feet” – as accurate today as it was then.

  • Amazing Grace can be played by using only the black keys of a piano keyboard so I have heard.

  • Christopher Haigh 13th Jun '20 - 10:39pm

    @Manfarang – it’s either F sharp or G flat major.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 14th Jun '20 - 8:08am

    I first heard John Newton’s story in RE lessons at school, and I think of this story whenever I hear Amazing Grace. I understand the song as being about John Newton’s shame at his past as a slave trader, and his gratitude that there can be forgiveness even for “a wretch like me”.
    It is a pity his story is not better known. It shows that people can change, and that indeed one person can be quite different people at different stages of their lives. I don’t know whether there are any statues of John Newton, but if there were, should they be removed, as the image of a slave trader, or preserved, as the image of a man who repented of his past and atoned?

  • @Catherine Jane Crosland – I have just googled and discovered that there is an Amazing Grace Park in Co Donegal, which has a bust of John Newton.
    There is also an interesting sculpture about slavery in the City of London on the site where John Newton was a vicar.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 15th Jun '20 - 9:04am

    Mary, thank you for your reply, and for the links to the interesting information about two modern sculptures that I was not previously aware of

  • Robin Bennett 16th Jun '20 - 5:25pm

    “Amazing Grace can be played by using only the black keys of a piano keyboard so I have heard.”
    This is the pentatonic scale, used throughout the Celtic world, and perhaps a hint of its origin

  • Jonathan Coulter 22nd Jun '20 - 5:01pm

    I agree thoroughly Mary. People can and do change. The first and possibly most outstanding anti-slavery campaigner was Friar Bartolome de las Casas who went out to Hispaniola as a colonial planter in the time of Christopher Columbus, but was horrified at the exploitation and genocide of native Americans, joined the Church and dedicated his life to fighting against their enslavement – sailing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic to petition the King. The large indigenous communities of Guatemala and Chiapas are testament to what he achieved, and there is even a city named after him called San Cristobal de las Casas.

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