Captain John Newton & Amazing Grace — The Story Behind the Myth

agmusicalA new musical is coming to Broadway this summer, which features a ship’s captain and stage sets with lots of ship’s rigging. It is based on the story of Captain John Newton and the song Amazing Grace.  The musical is described: AMAZING GRACE is a new original musical based on the awe-inspiring true story behind the world’s most beloved song. A captivating tale of romance, rebellion and redemption, this radiant production follows one man whose incredible journey ignited a historic wave of change.

The story of Captain Newton and the song Amazing Grace is quite remarkable. The problem is separating the myth from what actually happened.

In its simplest form, the story is that John Newton was the captain of a slave ship in 1748. The ship was caught in a storm and appeared likely to be lost. Newton cried out for God’s mercy. The storm subsided and Newton rededicated himself as a Christian. He gave up slaving, wrote the ever-popular song, Amazing Grace, and became an abolitionist.

The problem with the story is that while it is more or less true, it doesn’t give any real context.  The time-line is highly compressed.  Newton may have undergone a conversion in 1748, but that did not stop him from continuing in the slave trade. He made three more slave trading voyages and did not leave slaving or the sea until 1754, after suffering a severe stroke. His health may have played a much larger role in his retirement from the profitable profession of slaving than any religious considerations.

Likewise, he did write the lyrics to Amazing Grace, but he wrote them in 1772. The lyrics were published in 1779.  (He did not write the music. The  iconic melody now associated with the song was first published in 1829.) So, if the song lyrics were indeed related to his conversion in 1748, it took him almost a quarter century to get the lyrics onto paper.

It also took Newton another 16 years after writing the song lyrics and over 30 years after his at-sea-conversion, before he officially became an abolitionist. He broke his long silence with the publication of a pamphlet “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” in 1788, in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. He apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … ”  To his credit, Newton became an ally of William Wilberforce, leader of the Parliamentary campaign to abolish the African slave trade.

Like so many really good stories handed down from history, the tale of Captain John Newton and Amazing Grace should be taken with just a grain of salt.

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2 Responses to Captain John Newton & Amazing Grace — The Story Behind the Myth

  1. David Davies says:

    I live quite close to Olney in Buckinghamshire, England, where John Newton served as curate and where he’s buried: http://olneyparish.org.uk/church-history/john-newton/ I’ve been to the church many times, and unsurprisingly, it glosses over the difficult questions that you raise!

  2. Rick Spilman says:

    Hey David,

    The church bio is deftly written. It doesn’t really leave anything out. It is just a bit careful in its emphasis.