The Hymn "Amazing Grace", John Newton and William Wilberforce
Amazing Grace - lyrics by John Newton
What does a Christian hymn, a slave trader and a respresentative in British parliament all have in common? All three converged in the fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire.
The well-known Christian hymn, "Amazing Grace," written by John Newton, became in Britain, the well-known Christian hymn advocating the abolishment of slavery throughout the British Empire. British parliament finally abolished slavery in most of the British Empire in 1833, thirty years before the U.S. did the same. And, this hymn was instrumental in the British abolishionist movement.
This beautiful hymn was published originally in 1779, and was written by John Newton upon his conversion to Christianity and to express his regret for ever having been involved in the slave trade for Britain. It's message is of forgiveness and redemption and that both are possible regardless of the sins people commit. The soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God.
"Amazing Grace," is one of the most recognizable songs in the English speaking world today. John Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, and he was very insubordinate and rebellious the first part of his adulthood.
He was pressed into service in the Royal Navy of Britain and became a sailor sailing the seas participating in the slave trade. One terrible stormy night at sea, his ship being battered by the storm, Newton became so frightened he called out to God for mercy -- this was the moment of Newton's religious and spiritual conversion.
Newton's career in the slave trading business lasted a few years more and then he quit the slave trade and the sea life and began studying theology. He was ordained in the Church of England (Anglican Church) in 1764 and became the curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire. He wrote a book of hymns with William Cowper, which was published in 1779 known as "Olney Hymns."
At the time of publication it is not known which melody was used with the song and so it became obscure in England. But in America it was sung extensively during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. From this time on, it has been a popular tune in the U.S. In Great Britain, it was recognized as a song to herald the anti-slavery movement, but the famous melody we sing with the words today, did not come until much later.
In 1835, the words were joined to a tune named, "New Britain," to which it is most frequently sung today. The tune was written by William Walker and it created the song that has become "Amazing Grace" as we know it today.
Willliam Joseph Wilberforce
William Wilberforce was a British politician and leader of the abolitionist movement against the slave trade in Great Britain. He became the independent member of Parliament for Yorkshire. In 1785 he underwent a religious conversion experience and became an Evangelical Christian and from then on had a liflong concern for reform in British society and a return to morality because he saw British society as amoral, especially when it came to the slave trade Britain was involved in.
He met Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Hannah More, and Charles Middleton, a group of anti-slave trade activists, and they persuaded Wilberforce to take on the cause of abolition. He became the leading English abolitionsist and campaigned in Parliament against British slave trade for twenty-six years. In 1807 Wilberforce saw the Slave Trade Act passed by Parliament.
After the passage of the Slave Trade Act, Wilberforce supported the campaign for complete abolltion of slavery and continued his involvement even though he became ill and was forced to resign from Parlliament. His involvement led to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Tragically, he died only three days before he was assured of its passage. He was buried in Westminster Abby.
Lyrics of the first verse of "Amazing Grace"
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.
--John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779
Newton used The New Testament as the basis for the lyrics of "Amazing Grace." This first verse comes from the story of the Prodigal Son. In the Gospel of Luke, the father says, "For this son of mine was dead and is alive again' he was lost, and is found."
The story of Jesus healing a blind man who tells the Pharisees that he can now see, is told in the Gospel of John. Newton used the words, "I was blind, but now I see," from this gospel.
It took a former slave trader turned church minister to pen the words of this "amazing" song and prayer. At his religious conversion after the stormy night on ship, he realized he had been "lost and now was found." Found to God's mercy and forgiveness. He realized he had been "blind" to the horrid act of slave trading, but now, with God's grace, he could "see" his wicked and wrong ways.
It took an impassioned representative from Parliament who had his own religious conversion and "born again Christian" to tirelessly work for the abolishment of slavery and the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce, Newton, and "Amazing Grace" all converged at the right time and at the right place to bring about the end of slavery in the British Empire and to understand and celebrate the human rights of the African-American.
Note: This hub was inspired by none other than our own HubPages, Hyphenbird. When I read her outstanding piece on "The Dream of Martha Ann Ricks", it reminded me of the story of Britain's abolitionist movement. Hence, this hub. Thank you, Hyphen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved
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