“amazing grace” is about redeeming its white writer for his role in slavery, maybe it’s time for a new fave

June 12, 2017
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“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me / I once was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now I see.”

We all know these words because, objectively, “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful hymn that has withstood the test of time. But underneath these beautiful lyrics is a much more sinister story that many people may not know, a story that just might change how willing you are to ever sing those words again.

As Facebook user Nic Few pointed out on Friday, John Newton, who penned “Amazing Grace”, was the captain of a slave ship in his youth. According to his journals, Newton not only transported Africans into a life of torture and bondage, but sometimes he even partook in raping the slave women aboard his ship:

Newton eventually became an abolitionist, and, as the song illuminates, came to look back on his past crimes as the sins that they were. This was a praiseworthy development, and maybe if all white people were to have a similar epiphany about their role in anti-Black violence, we might get somewhere.

But perhaps the reason we are here now is that even when white people like Newton express regret for their anti-Black brutalities, they still center their own story and redemption, not the story of those who were the victims of their violence. It’s no wonder many people don’t know the history behind the hymn, “Amazing Grace” never even bothers to mention the story of the slave women Newton raped, because its all about the grace God gives him.

As Few said, “Maybe we don’t need so much songs about grace for the cruel ‘wretched’ as much as we need songs about VICTORY over oppression.”

Banner photo: painting of John Newton by John Russell hanging in the CMS building in Oxford. Photo © Marylynn Rouse / The John Newton Project