When John Newton, eventual author of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” first came to saving faith in Jesus Christ, he did not immediately renounce the slave trade that he was then part of. The story of why that was the case is worth considering and has relevance to our own moral blind spots today.
When Newton (1725-1807) became a convinced Christian at twenty-three years of age, he was serving as first mate on a trading vessel in the Triangular Trade (TT). In the TT, cutlery, wool and guns were shipped from England to the Grain Coast (modern Sierra Leone) of western Africa. From there Africans were taken as slaves to the West Indies. Normally around twenty percent of the slaves died aboard ship in that Middle Passage of the TT. Sugar, rum and spices were then taken back to England.
Newton was disgusted by the revolting aspects of the slave trade – the squalor, horrid smell, deaths, etc. But that was more due to the inconvenience those caused himself rather than out of pity for slaves. Slaves were viewed more as cattle than as humans. Slave trading was considered a perfectly legitimate, even respectable vocation.
Three weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday Newton set sail as captain of a small trading vessel in the TT. He faced grave and constant dangers from a rebellious, mutinous crew as well as a near slave insurrection when twenty Africans escaped their chains temporarily. Newton’s treatment of the slaves became more civil – the crew was not allowed to abuse them, they were not packed as tightly, the hold was hosed down periodically to reduce the smell, and they received an improved diet. During that voyage, six crew members died from fever, which was not at all abnormal. Only six slaves died, which was highly unusual.
Before a serious seizure forced Newton to retire from the sea trade at age twenty-nine, he was twice captain of a large trading vessel in the Triangular Trade. In the 1752 voyage of his ship “only” 28 of 174 slaves died in the Middle Passage. The following year only 87 slaves were transported and none of those died.
After working in the Customs and Excise Office at Liverpool for nine years Newton was ordained as a minister in the Church of England at age 38. That same year, 1753, his personal testimony was published in book form. After devoting a chapter to the deplorable treatment of slaves in that trade, he wrote: “The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that knowing the state of this vile traffic as I have described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not at the time start with horror at my own employment as an agent in promoting it. Custom, example [of others], and interest [i.e., personal financial gain] had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly, for I am sure had I thought of the slave trade then as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it. Though my religious views were not very clear, my conscience was very tender, and I durst [dared] not have displeased God by acting against the light of my mind.”
While in his first pastorate at Olney, seventy miles northwest of London, Newton befriended and made a positive impression on a young teen, William Wilberforce, who often visited Newton’s home and church with his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce. (William and Hannah were William’s guardians at the time and good friends of John and Polly Newton.) Young William Wilberforce went on to become a Member of Parliament just before his twenty-first birthday and came to Christian faith at age twenty-six. By that time Newton was serving a prestigious congregation in London. He affirmed Wilberforce’s newfound Christian convictions and encouraged him to serve God by remaining in Parliament.
In 1788, one month before Wilberforce first introduced legislation to abolish Britain’s slave trade, Newton published a best-selling, highly-influential pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. In it he detailed the degrading, inhumane, brutal and murderous aspects of the slave trade, not only for male and female slaves but also for their captors. When Wilberforce renewed his legislation in the House of Commons for the abolition of slavery in 1791 and 1792, Newton preached sermons against slavery. Newton also bore powerful, informed testimony against the slave trade before a Select Committee of the House of Commons.
The battle to abolish British slavery stretched out for decades. On May 1, 1807, just months before Newton’s death, an Act of Parliament was passed, making it illegal to ship slaves from any British territory. Less than three months after Newton’s death, in March, 1808, another Act of Parliament forbade the landing of slaves onto British territory. The Emancipation Act, setting free all slaves and completely abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, was officially brought about in August, 1833, one month after the death of Wilberforce.
The initial moral blindness of not only Newton but also Britain and America (including many evangelical Christians in those countries) with regard to the slave trade should lead us to careful personal introspection. What are the widely-accepted evils of our own day that even large numbers of professing Christians are blind toward and participants in? May God graciously grant us as individual Christians and as the Christian Church collectively the ability to perceive, repent of and actively warn against the tragic moral and spiritual blind spots of our own generation.
A number of excellent biographies have been written on Newton’s extraordinary life and ministry: John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken (Crossway, 2007 & 2013); “But Now I See,” The Life of John Newton, by Josiah Bull (Banner of Truth, 1998, a reprint of a work first published in 1868); The Life of John Newton, by John Newton and Richard Cecil (Baker, 1978, a reprint of a work originally published in the 1800s); John Newton, The British Slave Trader Who found “Amazing Grace,” by Catherine Swift (Bethany, 1991, a somewhat shorter account of Newton’s life).
Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie