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Angela Tilby: Newton changed — as can we

19 June 2020

IN THE current fevered debate about the legacy of black slavery, I have come across few direct mentions of John Newton. This has surprised me, not least because his hymn, “Amazing Grace”, is one of the best-known hymns in the world, crossing barriers of class, ethnicity, and church tradition.

Newton’s story has the makings of a tragedy, but it did not end that way. He was the son of a shipmaster and lost his mother at an early age. He was only 11 when he joined his father at sea. Destined for a position in a West Indian sugar-cane plantation, he was press-ganged into service by the Royal Navy. After his escape, he worked on various slave ships before himself ending up himself as a slave to a West African woman, who mistreated him.

After his rescue, he was nearly shipwrecked, an experience that turned him, at first, to prayer, and then to a more serious engagement with the Christian faith. Although for some years he continued to work in the slave trade, he eventually returned home, seeking to become a minister of the gospel. The Dissenters did not want him, and he turned to the Church of England, eventually becoming incumbent, first of Olney, in Buckinghamshire, and later at St Mary Woolnoth, in London. As a priest, Newton became famous for his Evangelical preaching, his friendships with Evangelical Dissenters, and, eventually, for his support for the abolitionist cause, in which he counselled the young William Wilberforce.

Newton’s story is worth pondering because it reveals not only that repentance is at the heart of Christian life, but that individual repentance can have unforeseen social consequences. In Newton’s age, slavery was an economic reality, as it has been at many times in human history, including today. There is always a profit to be made from human servitude. Newton knew both sides of the economic divide. Having endured slavery, he apparently for some years had no qualms about profiting from it. He knew what it was to be a wretch in two senses: first, to lose physical agency, and then to fail to assume moral agency. But he changed.

Evangelical Christianity has always believed that genuine conversion is possible. Bullies can be transformed; the despised are given their dignity. There is an uncomfortable insistence that no one is inherently righteous; sin imprisons both the sinner and the sinned against.

This is the background to the Evangelical claim that repentance and faith go together, though deeply ingrained assumptions can take time to shift. The Good News is that we are not finally imprisoned by our upbringing, our prejudices, the abuse we have suffered or inflicted. All can be forgiven, though none deserve forgiveness. It is in fact, all grace. Amazing Grace!

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