Hearts at Work
A Column by James Tipton
“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Most English-speaking people recognize those words, and many love them. For those of us who were raised with hymns, “Amazing Grace”—some call it America’s most beloved song—comes back like a faithful friend to visit now and then.
A couple of decades ago, my mother called me to tell me that a cousin had died. He had been in a coma for two weeks, death was imminent, but in those final moments, he sat up in bed, apparently conscious, and in his once strong baritone voice, sang out the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” He then laid his head back on his pillow and with the smile of grace settling over him, he passed into the next world.
That melody, so deep in our systems, was, some say, actually a slave melody, sung on southern plantations. Others attribute the melody to one of several composers. But there is no doubt that the words were written by John Newton (1725-1807), a notorious slave trader, so foul-mouthed that his captain, certainly used to the lewd tongues of sailors, nevertheless declared that John Newton’s language “exceeded the limits of verbal debauchery.”
In March of 1748, however, John Newton found himself in a particularly violent storm, and, while lashed to the pumps to keep from being washed overboard, cried out from his heart, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on us!” For several weeks before the storm Newton had, uncharacteristically, been reading Thomas a Kempis’ influential book, Imitation of Christ. In the weeks that followed the storm that almost took his life, Newton began to ponder whether there was anything in him that was even redeemable, and he began to recognize that not only had he neglected his own faith but that he had attempted to mock others who had faith, deriding and denouncing God as a myth.
Although his conversion was not complete for several years, he did attempt to improve conditions on slave ships and by age thirty, he had left the sea for good. He began to study Greek and Latin and theology. At age thirty-nine, he became ordained by the Anglican Church and was offered the Curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire.
Newman took much of his material for sermons from his earlier life. He became very popular because of his ability to unite the common with the spiritual. Large crowds would gather to hear the “Old Converted Sea Captain.” Unable to find hymns that were simple and heartfelt, he began writing them himself. His neighbor and friend William Cowper, a popular English poet, helped him, and together in 1779 they produced their famous Olney Hymns, a collection of poems which included a total of 349 hymns. All but 67 were written by Newton. The lyrics to Amazing Grace were among them, written in late 1772. But it was not until 1835 that they were set to the melody that is now inseparable from the lyrics.
Newton also continued his anti-slavery efforts and as a popular preacher he joined forces with William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament who led the effort to end the slave trade in the British Empire. His health failing at age 82, a church spokesman suggested Newton consider retirement. Newton replied, “What, shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can still speak?” Newton died in 1807, the same year that British Parliament abolished slavery throughout the empire.