Hymn-writing saved even a wretch like him

The author of 'Amazing Grace' was indeed transformed by faith

Toward the end of the evening, with the lights low and the crowd frog-throated from boisterous singalongs, Arlo Guthrie often winds down his concerts with the old hymn "Amazing Grace."

And not just him. Over the song's 230-year history, everyone from mourners to mass choirs to pop stars have made it their own. Fats Domino, Joan Baez, Destiny's Child - whoever the performer - after a verse or two, they'll often do what Arlo does: stop singing and, keeping up the chords in the background, tell the story of how the hymn came to be.

The man who wrote "Amazing Grace," they'll say, was captain of a slave ship. One night, as he was sailing a great cargo of slaves bound from Africa, a storm hit, and his ship was almost sunk. As the waves churned and boiled, he knelt and prayed - and changed his mind, and turned that ship around. When he'd returned the slaves to Africa, he sailed home and wrote this song about it.

"That man might have lived a long time ago," said Guthrie at one memorable performance, "but he's a friend of mine today. Because anybody who is not afraid to turn around is a friend of mine today.... Because there's a lot of stuff in this world that needs to be turned around."

It makes an inspiring story. But not an accurate story.

In Steve Turner's "Amazing Grace," the first comprehensive account of the hymn's difficult author and his slow transformation, the song's real story is a subtler one. But in its switchbacks, its humiliations, and its eventual grace, it becomes perhaps a more amazing one.

John Newton was nobody's easy hero. A somber child, he first went to sea at 11, with his father as captain. There, extremely unhappy, he grew into a lonely troublemaker who, by age 19, had abandoned or been thrown off three ships, and lost his place in the British Royal Navy.

Eager to prove himself, Newton signed on as apprentice to one slave trader who tortured him, then a second in whose company he thrived. But a childhood love drew Newton back to England, and on the voyage home, the ship he boarded was almost torn apart by a violent storm. Standing at the helm for a late-night watch, Newton decided he should believe in God.

But his newfound faith didn't cause him to turn that ship around, nor did it keep him from serving as mate, then captain, on several slaving voyages in the years that followed. Though he is said to have treated the slaves on his ships gently, he hints in his journals that before his marriage he joined other sailors in raping female slaves.

Paradoxically, on these voyages Newton was also deepening and broadening his study of Christianity. When a seizure and his wife's illness prevented him from returning to sea, he was ordained in the Anglican church.

Taking charge of a country parish, he proved a charismatic priest. To bring Christ's teachings to men like those with whom he'd sailed, he began writing a hymn a week to illustrate Bible verses. "Amazing Grace," based on I Chronicles 17:16-17, was first performed on New Year's Day, 1773.

Over time, Newton came to be appalled by his early complicity in the slave trade. When he was given charge of a large congregation in London, he became a prominent abolitionist. "I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me," he writes, "that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." In 1807, with the king's assent, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery for which he'd lobbied tirelessly became law in Britain.

But all that is only the first half of Turner's encyclopedic work. Part 2 follows "Amazing Grace" after Newton's death, through multiple iterations, into the hymnals and the revival halls of the American South, onto Civil War battlefields, onto the pop charts, and into its current place as "America's spiritual national anthem."

Sometimes a more detailed account than the casual reader might wish, "Amazing Grace" is nevertheless a rich and exhaustively researched resource for historians, students, and enthusiasts. Though Turner, in his multiple introductions, seems a little too in love with the process by which he came to write the book, in the end his message makes any wallowing worthwhile.

It is no coincidence, he suggests, that "America's favorite song" was written by a man as conflicted and sometimes inhumane as the country itself. Though Newton believed in grace, his later life shows how strongly he also believed in the need to live up to it.

Mary Wiltenburg is on the Monitor staff.

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