On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave-trader-turned-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born. Newton's autobiography (An Authentic Narrative of some Interesting and Remarkable Particulars in the Life of John Newton, 1764) makes clear how repeatedly lost and found a wretch he was: to sea with his merchant marine father at the age of eleven; sent to Spain as a shopkeeper's apprentice at fifteen; another try as sailor in Venice at seventeen; press-ganged into service aboard an English man-of-war but such a trouble-maker that he was released to a slave-trader; abandoned by the trader to the whims of his "African princess" concubine, who starved him, and encouraged the natives to jeer and throw rocks at her white slave; a sequence of better or worse treatment by other captain-traders, and a series of broken pledges to reform a life "big with mischief"; finally, at age twenty-two, a passage home to England and, during a savage storm off the coast of Newfoundland, a born-again deliverance into evangelical Christianity.
Newton eventually became a passionate abolitionist; his famous hymn eventually became popular in the slave-bound American South. In the 1830s, decades after Newton had died, Southern hymnbooks began to include "Amazing Grace" -- now so re-titled from Newton's original "Faith's Review and Expectation," and sung "shape-note" fashion to the anonymously-written tune the world now knows. The lyrics, too, had a life of their own: in Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, lines were added to emphasize the religion; other, "disrobed" versions, such as the one made popular by Judy Collins, represent "the transmogrification of the hymn into a self-help anthem" and do not, complain some Christians, represent Newton's intent.
Perhaps Aretha Franklin giveth what Judy Collins hath taken away. In his recent book on Newton, his hymn, and its musical life (Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song), Steve Turner contrasts the night in the early 70s when Collins sang the hymn to her encounter group in order to calm things down -- her record producer was present, and had her include it in her next album-with the night Franklin recorded her live, fourteen-minute version, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts. This was in "the long meter style of the Holiness churches where the tune is pulled apart wide enough to let the spirit in," and it would have amazed Newton's Olney congregation, which had to do even their style of singing after-hours and out-of-Church. Newton himself might have been clapping along in his grave, beneath a self-written epitaph which proclaims him "an infidel and libertine. . . preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy."
Apart from the autobiography, and the Olney Hymns written with the poet William Cowper, Newton is known for his letters. These are devout and purposeful, but "the old African blasphemer" reveals himself to his parishioners as human, still spirited, and mindful of his youth:
Last week we had a lion in town. I went to see him. He was wonderfully tame; as familiar with his keeper, as docile and obedient as a spaniel. Yet the man told me he had his surly fits, when they durst not touch him. No looking-glass could express my face more justly than this lion did my heart. I could trace every feature: as wild and fierce by nature; yea, much more so; but grace has in some measure tamed me. I know and love my Keeper, and sometimes watch his looks that I may learn his will. But, oh! I have my surly fits too; seasons when I relapse into the savage again, as though I had forgotten all.