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Exhibition to mark slave-owner turned Abolitionist John Newton

18 June 2021


The tomb of John and Mary Newton in the churchyard of St Peter and Paul, Olney

The tomb of John and Mary Newton in the churchyard of St Peter and Paul, Olney

THE contentious issue of commemorating in churches and cathedrals the lives of those who had been involved in the slave trade arose in the Consistory Court of Oxford diocese in a petition for a faculty to create an educational area dedicated to the life and work of the Revd John Newton (1725-1807), in the Grade I listed Church of St Peter and St Paul, Olney.

Newton was described in The Dictionary of National Biography (2010) by D. Bruce Hindmarsh as a “slave trader and Church of England clergyman” who had “been accused of hypocrisy for holding strong religious convictions at the same time as being active in the slave trade, praying above deck while his human cargo was in abject misery below deck”. Later in life, and after he had left the sea, he repented and supported the movement for the abolition of the slave trade.

An entry by Historic England stated that his “singular position as a figure of unimpeachable moral authority with first-hand experience of the slave trade made his contribution to the success of the abolition movement extremely valuable”.

The petition for the faculty was unopposed, and was brought by the Rector, the Revd Andrew Pritchard-Keens, and two churchwardens of St Peter and St Paul (“the petitioners”), where Newton had been an assistant curate from 1764 to 1780. On New Year’s Day 1773, he delivered a sermon, based on a hymn that he had written a few days earlier, “Faith’s Review and Expectations”. That hymn later became “Amazing Grace”, and Olney came to be known, as the road sign into Olney proclaimed, “The home of ‘Amazing Grace’”.

In 1779, a book was published, Olney Hymns, written by Newton in collaboration with his close friend the poet William Cowper (1731 to 1800). It had 67 hymns by Cowper, and 281 by Newton, including “Glorious things of thee are spoken” and “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”.

In 1780, Newton became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, in the City of London, and while there he formed a strong relationship with William Wilberforce, whom he advised and supported in the campaign to abolish slavery. Newton and his wife were originally buried in the crypt under St Mary Woolnoth, but their remains had to be moved to accommodate the extension to the London Underground Northern Line, and the construction of Bank Underground Station. Their remains were transported to Olney, and interred in a tomb that is now a Grade II listed monument.

The Church of England’s guidance for parishes and cathedrals addresses concerns over memorials with links to slavery (News, 14 May). It notes that, although churches and cathedrals are, above all, places dedicated to the worship of God, not all members of the local community feel welcome there, and that might be because of the presence of objects commemorating people who were responsible for the oppression and marginalisation of others.

The report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce also recognised that, while history should not be hidden, the Church did not want unconditionally to celebrate or commemorate those who had contributed to or benefited from the tragedy that was the slave trade (News, 23 April).

Given the sensitivity and relevance of Newton’s involvement in the slave trade, the petitioners clarified how they proposed to approach the subject of the slave trade in their exhibits, which had been donated by the Cowper and Newton Museum, in Olney. They said that they intended to celebrate Newton’s Christian conversion, his life as an evangelist and hymn-writer, and his inspiring relationship with Wilberforce. But they did not intend to sanitise or airbrush history and would highlight the evils of the slave trade and all that it involved. They also intended to celebrate “Amazing Grace”.

The Chancellor, the Worshipful David Hodge QC, said that, since the proposal was one that essentially involved the historical associations of the church and its cultural, ethical, and heritage values, it was not a proposal that, if implemented, would result in any harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest. The ordinary presumption in faculty proceedings in favour of things as they stood had also been rebutted.

The planned changes were designed to bring into regular and beneficial use what was presently a little-used area of the church, and to ensure that it was available to educate visitors, in a balanced way, about Newton, his life and work, and to celebrate his later, and worthy, achievements while not overlooking or in any way seeking to diminish his earlier sins, the Chancellor said. As the home of “Amazing Grace”, with significant connections to Newton and Cowper, the church already attracted thousands of visitors every year, and the changes that were being proposed would serve only to enhance the visitor experience, thereby enhancing the church’s mission.

The Chancellor said that the new displays would serve to remind the worshipping congregation and visitors that Jesus came “to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5.32), and would also bring to mind the true saying of St Paul, worthy of all to be received, “That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1, 15), as they were instructed during the service of holy communion according to the Book of Common Prayer.

From the material presented to him, the Chancellor said, it appeared that the church was alive to the need to ensure that there was “appropriate diversity amongst the materials to be displayed . . . and to recognise the vital contributions made to the abolition of the vile trade in human flesh by African and other global majority heritage writers and abolitionists, women and working-class reformers, rather than simply focusing upon the work of prominent white, upper- and middle-class male abolitionists like John Newton and William Wilberforce”.

The faculty was therefore granted for the proposals to be implemented within six months.

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