At the recent “funeral for farmlands” march in downtown Kentville my grandson and I rendered one of the best loved, best known hymns of all times on our bagpipes. This beloved hymn was Amazing Grace, which according to Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains may also be one of the most recorded hymns of all times. Hochschild wrote in his book on abolishing the slave trade that Amazing Grace has been recorded nearly 1,200 times and counting.
The melody of Amazing Grace has also become a popular bagpipe tune; I get requests for it all the time, at celebrations of all kinds, at rallies, private parties, at marches, wedding and funerals. To the best of my knowledge, and I stand to be corrected, Amazing Grace was first introduced and popularized as a pipe tune several decades ago by the renowned band of the Scots Guards. However, the hymn is well over 200 years old. John Newton, a British clergyman, composed it in 1772.
There is an amazing tale behind this wonderful hymn and it has to do with its composer, John Newton. Born in London in 1725, Newton went to sea when he was 11 with his sea captain father. At age 17 he was seized by a naval press and spent two years at sea on a British ship. Several years later we find him on a slave trader’s ship. An unruly troublemaker, Newton’s captain got rid of him when the opportunity came to trade him for a sailor from the slave ship.
Eventually Newton became the captain of a slave ship and spent roughly a decade buying and selling human beings. Before he became the master of a slave ship, however, Newton suffered through a near disaster at sea and became convinced that he was saved through the mercy of God. He became deeply religious as a result but still became involved in the slave trade.
In 1774, 10 years after leaving the sea, Newton was ordained as an Anglican clergyman. As curate of a market town near London, Newton’s sermons earned him the reputation as a leading preacher. In the meanwhile, Newton began writing hymns in earnest; one of the most renowned hymn writers in the English language, he composed some 280, many of which are still sung today.
What make Newton’s story amazing is that as a former slave trader turned deeply religious, he lived on the proceeds of his slave trading days until he died and saw nothing wrong with it. Now for a bit more irony. Newton eventually became involved in the successful crusade to abolish slave trading in the British Empire. Long silent on the slave trade as a famous clergyman, he became a devout abolitionist in his sixties. A pamphlet he published (Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade) was a confession of sorts but it became one of the key tools in abolishing slavery.