Slave trading was legal when Newton was alive. He died in 1807, at age 82, and Britain abolished slave trade that year. Unfortunately, slavery was still legal until 1838 in Britain and its colonies. It was abolished in the United States in 1865.
What was happening in Europe and the New World was commerce. It was a rapidly expanding and growing economic development that called for laborers. That is cheap, human laborers. Tremendous profits were made by merchants. Regardless of the many Africans who died on board, they were still crammed aboard. This was so a profitable number of slaves would arrive alive. The conditions were terrible for the slaves on board. They were chained to one another and experienced gagging heat, and limited movement below deck. Slaves that worked on deck fared better, because they had fresh air, and less limited movement. Slaves were often captured by kidnapping, and sold by by local political chiefs. Once captured they were crudely yoked by rope and wood and marched to the ship by the coast. There negotiations began for the selling and purchasing of captured Africans who were often chained, branded, shaved, and assigned numbers instead of using their names. Put all these people upon a ship, and the possibilities of very desperate, angry desires to rebel were not uncommon. When such instances were discovered by the crew, the slaves thought to be the rabble-rousers were put in heavy metal collars tightened until they confessed.
John Newton biography states that he was enslaved on a lime plantation in S
ierra Leone for fourteen months, during his teen years. He certainly knew what the human condition of slavery meant from that experience. He was absent from kindness and human touch except for the African slaves he befriended. One wonders how he could later become a slave trader, after enduring the hardship himself. Yet, he was freed eventually, and did to others what was done to him. He was a slave trader captain from 1747 - 1754.
During his slave trading days he went through phases of embracing and abandoning his religious beliefs. Before he was a captain, and he was on other ships working, he swore and undermined the captains authority. Yet he also wrote prayers, and studied the bible. He must have been a tortured man, wondering if the slave trade business was indeed his calling, or not. He was an only child, home schooled by his mother. At age four he could read and memorize bible quotes, poems, and hymns. He began to learn Latin at age six. His mother wanted him to become a minister. He went to sea at age eleven, and until 1754 when he quit sailing he was troubled by his dual life. Actually, he did experience a life changing event that that gave the Amazing Grace origin although it wasn’t published until 1779 in the Olney Hymns book.
Interestingly enough, Newton was aboard the ship, the Greyhound, as a passenger when he found that God did answer prayers. He was awakened from the sound and force of a violent sea which filled the ship with water, and caused further destruction. He ended up asking for mercy from the Lord, and then realizing that he may not have any mercy coming his way. He knew he hadn’t desired mercy for many years. He began to help bail water out of the ship, wondering if it would sink. It didn’t and the storm date was observed by him for his remaining days because, “on that day the Lord sent from on high, and delivered me out of the deep waters.” That storm led Newton to the ministry his mother had wanted for him.
In 1787 Newton published “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” where he says that although he felt the slave trade was disagreeable, and he should have stopped it earlier, he was ignorant about considering it wrong as he did later. He had been ordained as a curate of a church in Olney, England and was a powerful speaker. His Olney Hymns book was divided into three sections of hymns - scripture, seasons, and other faith subjects. The Amazing Grace hymn published in the book is:
“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!
Through 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 hymn has traveled through many generations. It began as being chanted, then musical notes were added. The source of the music isn’t clear, but what is clear is the Amazing Grace history and Amazing Grace meaning continues to be inspiring, soothing and spiritual for many. Often its popularity heightened during times of social upheaval, like the 1960’s (civil rights demonstrations). It seems to be known more as a song or music or lyrics, rather than of its humble beginnings as a hymn. There is even a film titled, Amazing Grace, though it is about William Wilberforce, a social reformer who was influenced by Newton’s sermons, and an activist in abolishing slavery.
source- Amazing Grace The Story Of The Hymn , Granfield
photos credits - Slave traders painting, author Rama - Wikimedia public domain
Wood engraving, author anonymous (1789), British Museum, Wikimedia