Amazing Grace: Can Redemption Come Too Late for a White Supremacist?

Note: In March, I spoke at the University of Portland on the life and legacy of John Newton, composer of the beloved Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.” With gratitude to my hosts at UP and all who attended, what follows is an excerpted version of the talk, “Amazing Grace: Diversity, Deep Listening, and the Anatomy of a Song.” The whole can be heard here.

WRITTEN IN THE MIDDLE of the 18th century by English pastor and composer John Newton, “Amazing Grace” has long been one of the most beloved hymns in the English-speaking Christian world. And yet there are parts of Newton’s story, darker chapters of his life, that not too many people know about. Before John Newton became a beloved pastor—indeed, so beloved that the church building had to be enlarged several times to accommodate his overflowing flock—before he wrote the hymn that would secure his legacy in Christian history and worship, John Newton was a slave trader.

John Newton (1725-1807)

From the age of 20 and for almost 10 years, he invested and worked in the slave trade, working the ships that carried newly captured African men, women, and children to North America across the Middle Passage. Even after his conversion to the Christian faith, Newton did not entirely separate himself from the slaveholding industry.

Thus his story, and the personal history behind the song, raises some hard questions still very much with us today: questions, for example, about the legacy of Christianity and white supremacy in America; questions about whether redemption can come too late for a person like John Newton; questions about to what extent a beloved work or body of art can be separated from the artist, when history reveals the artist, after all, to be a deeply flawed person (think here of R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, or Pablo Picasso); and indeed, if we are honest about our own moral failures, whether grace can come too hard or too late for us.

So I’d like to ask you to consider with me the meaning of “grace” itself—to think about experiences or events in your own life that you might call graced, about which you might now say, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” Grace is like that, I think. As we see in Newton’s story, grace doesn’t magically or mythologically change reality overnight or all in a flash; rather, grace reveals reality to us more clearly than we had seen it before (sometimes only bit by bit), and in the revelation of the truth, we are potentially set free.

For grace, too, is a powerful force in which we all live and move and have our being. Yet unlike the fear and violence that screams across our headlines, grace moves more quietly in the world; like the wind that blows through the trees and the sap that rises through frozen boughs at the end of winter, she moves in the rhythms of the earth herself—and in the goodness that dwells in the human heart. And so we’ve got to learn how to look and listen beneath the surfaces to catch the movement of grace in our own and in other people’s lives. Music can help us to do that. The song “Amazing Grace” can help us to do that.

As a young man in his early twenties working the slave ships, Newton established a reputation as one of the most crude and profane men in the business. But in March of 1748, the first stirrings of a change in Newton began to happen. He was on a ship in the North Atlantic when a violent storm came upon the vessel, so rough it swept overboard a crew member who was standing right where Newton had been just moments before. For 11 more hours, the crew fought to keep the ship from sinking, until at last, the storm subsided. Two weeks later the battered ship came to port in Ireland, Newton and the surviving crew near to starving.

But even then, after facing death, his conversion was not immediate. For two more years, he worked the ships until, at age 30, he grew gravely ill. Only then did he begin to ask himself “if he was worthy of God’s mercy . . . as he had not only neglected his faith but [he had] directly opposed it, mocking others who showed [any kind of faith],” and all the while “deriding and denouncing God as a myth.” In other words, when he wrote “Amazing Grace” decades later as a pastor, and would confess that grace had “saved a wretch like me,” he truly meant it; he felt himself to have been a wretch beyond all possibility of forgiveness.

In 1788, Newton finally broke his silence about his earlier years, publishing a pamphlet called Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. The pamphlet sold so well that it required many re-printings. He allied himself to William Wilberforce, the famous abolitionist, who was a member of his congregation, and he would live to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. But of himself, Newton did not hold out for much hope, writing in the pamphlet, “[My] confession…comes too late…. It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Ironically, as he grew ill and approached death, Newton lost his eyesight—literally he became blind—yet he had been saved, arguably, from a much worse kind of blindness. And he had actively worked to save others from the same destructive blindness in his work for abolition. Perhaps, after all, his redemption had not come too late.

But would grace move Newton to alter his position on white supremacy? It was quite possible to be a committed abolitionist, to detest slavery for its barbaric cruelty, yet still to hold the belief that whites are superior to blacks, that European culture and the Christian religion are far superior to African culture and religion. I don’t know where Newton came down finally on such questions. For me, the more interesting question has to do with us, with our attitudes and commitments today.

To say it more personally, when we as individuals and as a people look back over the course of our lives and take an honest measure of the social histories we have inhabited, to what extent might we recognize with sadness, perhaps even with shock, our own blindness and complicity in realities happening today at which our heart will one day shudder? [1] Just as Newton did not change his ways overnight or in a singular flash of renunciation, the movement of grace in our lives seems to work quietly, by stealth, as it were; grace beckons our freedom but never overrides it. In the terms of Catholic theology, grace works according to nature—messy, broken, beautiful, sometimes painfully captive human nature. Grace meets us at least halfway to the truth and more, but the rest is up to us.

We can count ourselves as “woke” all day long—I can know all the right things to say and what not to say, and be ready to pounce on anyone who says or does the wrong thing—but until we risk moving beyond our comfort zones and practice deep listening with the stranger, until the eyes of our hearts have been opened through friendship and solidarity, until I learn not only to tolerate but to celebrate the God-given beauty and distinct gifts of other peoples and cultures, to count myself as “woke” may be little more than virtue signaling, window dressing, cheap grace. It’s not terribly creative, risky, or interesting. It creates little change.

On the other hand, to be truly “woke” in Newton’s sense would be to dedicate ourselves to the creation of communities of justice, diversity, and kinship in which we can authentically say, in the words of one of my students, that “no matter where you come from or what you look like, you are welcome here. We are part of each other’s story.” That, to my mind, is a vision worth living and fighting for.

Dare we strive to be instruments for this kind of more vulnerable, costly grace in our classrooms, in our churches, in our society? And what about our country, our nation, our world? Can grace lead us home as a people? If not now, when? When will it finally come, our revelatory moment, our graced moment?

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

[1] For example, the current horror unfolding at our southern border. The book The Line Becomes a River shines a disturbing light (at times, disturbingly beautiful) into the life of a former border control agent, Francisco Cantu’. “In the sixteen years between 2000 and 2016, the US Border patrol recorded over six thousand deaths of persons trying to cross into the United States. In Arizona’s Pima County alone, the remains of more than two thousand migrants were found. A sheriff in a rural Texas county said, ‘for every one we find, we’re probably missing five.'” Cantu’ cites one coroner who describes this grim work as follows, in a 2017 New York Times article, “No one deserves to be just a number. The idea is to figure out who they are, and give them their name back.”

This essay was first published in the University of Portland magazine (Summer 2019) and on its website.

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