Amazing Grace:
The Hymn of a Repentant Slaver

ship, sunset

“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”—Luke 5:32


Amazing Grace is one of the most popular Christian songs of all time. Its haunting lyrics written by John Newton in 1792 are reflective of his soulful quest for forgiveness for his part in the slave trade.

In 1745 at the age of twenty Newton was a sailor aboard a slave ship. His crewmates abandoned him in Sierra Leone where he was himself enslaved. As a slave he was abused and mistreated by his master. Three years later he was rescued and returned to England.

Shortly after his return to England, Newton signed on as first mate aboard a slave trader. On his way back with a load of slaves the ship was caught in a violent storm and he prayed for God’s mercy. The storm abated. Still, he continued in the slave trade, making three more voyages as a slave ship captain. Shortly thereafter he suffered a stroke, forcing him to give up seafaring. Even so, John Newton continued to invest in slaving operations.

However, slowly he was enlightened and became an abolitionist. At the same time, he began serious religious studies.  In 1757 he was ordained as an evangelical lay minister abd in 1764 as a priest in the Anglican Church.

In 1772 Newton wrote the lyrics to Amazing Grace. In 1779 the hymn was published. The following year he was appointed rector of a London Anglican church.


Newton wrote and published his pamphlet, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” in 1788. In it he described the brutal conditions he witnessed and in which he participated during his slave trading days. He lamented: “I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

In his pamphlet Newton relates that on many slave ships the sailors took “unlimited” liberty with the enslaved women in transit. Insurrection was always a threat—the slaves were

“all put in irons…two and two together…the right hand and foot of one to the left of the other…thus they must sit and walk and lie, for many months (sometimes for nine or ten) without any mitigation or relief.”John Newton, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade”


Today few of us can even imagine what slavery was like. Reviewing old American newspapers gives us an idea in real time as to how the slaves were perceived and treated here in America.

In a 1794 want ad in the Philadelphia Gazette of the United States (page 1, column 3 at top) an owner sought the return of his runaway slave “Adonis” by offering an $8 reward. Adonis is described as “about 18 or 30 years old, big and fat, his face large and ugly…nose very flat, knock-kneed…[please] arrest him and send him to his master…where the reward will be paid.

In 1797 an edition of the Gazette of the United States & Philadelphia Advertiser (page 4, column 3 at bottom) offered a reward for Dick, another runaway slave, who had “more clothes than is customary for them to possess.”

The  above adverreflect the fact that slaves were the personal property of their masters. But it was worse than mere ownership. That ownership allowed these masters to treat his or her slaves as they pleased.

An 1815 article in the Richmond, Virginia Argus (page 3, column 5-midway) related that an apprehended runaway slave named Stephen was “stretched upon a log and whipped [and after] being given 20 or 30 lashes…the negro expired.”

In 1836 an article in the Cheraw Gazette [SC] (page 1, bottom column 6) related that a number of “shopkeepers [were beaten]…for selling whiskey to and harboring negroes…each [of the shopkeepers] received about one hundred lashes.”

In 1838 a $100 reward was posted in the Mobile Morning Chronicle [AL] (page 1, Column 2) seeking return of his runaway slave. His owner asserted the slave “has a good many mark of the whip on his back.

The same year a $20 reward was posted in the Vicksburg Register [MISS ] (page 1, Column 2) for a runaway with a limp which was caused by his being shot in the foot while running away!

In 1839 two slaves, Richard and his wife Eliza were wanted for running away from their master who offered $25 “dead or alive” for them. The advertisement in the Wilmington Advertiser [NC] (page 1, Column 2) stated “satisfactory proof will only be required of his being killed.”

An article in Vermont’s The Voice of Freedom (page 2, column 4 midway) relates how a woman master’s slave “whom she used to whip unmercifully…on one occasion, she whipped her as long as she had strength…the poor creature…crawled off into a cellar [and the slave was later] found dead [there].”

In June of 1839 a group of white men descended upon the free black settlement in Brown County, Indiana to arrest a black man. The Maumee City Express [OH] (page 2, column 5 , 2/3 down) reported that “after securing their victim they commenced whipping a negro woman…who had struck one [of the white men posse], and she making resistance one of the [white man posse] raised his gun and shot her in the back.

Hanging slaves was not uncommon prior to the Civil War. In 1838 the Washington Madisonian [DC] (page 3, column 4 towards top) reported that a “negro boy [was hanged to extort] evidence in a [criminal] case” in Lincoln County, Missouri.

An 1844 article in the Richmond Palladium [IN] (page 1, column 3 near top) reported that in Natchez, Mississippi, three slaves attacked and killed their master with their garden hoes. The master had gone to chastise one of the slaves. The slaves hid his body but as it deteriorated, the body stank, leading authorities to discover the incident. Two of the slaves—a man and a woman—were hanged. The other woman who was pregnant was spared. The unborn child, after all, would be an asset.


Slaves were routinely sold as evidenced in thousands of want ads in era newspapers. Typical examples are given below.

An 1800 advertisement in the Gazette of the United States and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser (page 2, column 1, bottom) offered for sale: “…A strong healthy Negro wench [for] all kinds of housework and is a plain good cook.”

A common advertisement often described groups of slaves as “consisting of men, women, girls and boys.” Even credit provisions were often extended, for example “the terms will be, six-month indulgence.” Underlying the slave’s “property” status, advertisements often described them as covered by a “Deed of Trust.”

Often slave sale advertisements listed the slave, his/her name and age. Seven such slaves were listed in 1847 in Fayette, Missouri’s Boon’s Lick Times : Jim (35), Mary (22), Harriet (19), Mary (14), Manda (6), Booker (4) and Owen (3). (page 3, column 1 at bottom).

These sales often separated families and there are numerous incidents related in the era newspapers indicating that the runaways were seeking to reunite themselves with their husband or wife.

Any number of sale advertisements were posted by jailers who routinely resold the slave, unless recovered by the owner, to recover costs associated with the incarceratiohttps://en.wikipedia.orgn. One such example is an 1801 advertisement placed by the Marshall of the District of Columbia in the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser (page 3, column, bottom). The Marshall claimed that there were four negroes held in his jail and requested their owners come and get them or “they will be sold as the law directs, to pay prison expenses.”


One of the biggest sales of slaves was conducted by Georgetown College (now university), in 1838, when the Jesuits sold 272 men, women and children. The college was broke and the money was needed to pay off its debt. The story was first disclosed in 2016 in a New York Times article. In current values, the slaves fetched the Jesuits $2.76 million.

Other Catholic organizations or personnel were also involved in the slave trade. In 1855 Elizabeth Farr bequeathed her five negro slaves to a Catholic priest. Elizabeth’s heirs disputed the legacy and won. Their grounds “all gifts to ministers of the gospel” violated the first amendment separating church and state, according to the Carroll Free Press [OH] (page 3, column 2, bottom).

A number of era articles allude to Slave state priests owning slaves.  A year after the Jesuit slave sale, Pope Gregory XVI issued the Papal Bull “In Supremo Apostolos” which denounced both the slave trade and the continuance of the institution of slavery. The American Catholic hierarchy more or less disregarded the papal bull. John England, Bishop of Charleston (1820-1842) interpreted the Bull as a condemnation against large-scale slave trading but not a condemnation of slave ownership. Francis Kenrick, Archbishop of Baltimore (1851-1863) concluded “such is the state of things [and that] nothing should be attempted against the laws.”


As the nation spiraled toward Civil War the question of slavery would finally be decided by the North’s victory over the South.

Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1896 summed it up best in his prayerlike Second Inaugural Address:

Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces…

The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” [Matthew 18:7]

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether” [Psalm 19:9]

Six weeks after his inaugural address the Civil War ended, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Lincoln was assassinated six days after that.


John Newton’s Amazing Grace is popular today because it resonates with all of us even some 223 years after its publication. Its courageous message makes it timeless. Newton’s song tells his story. It articulates the error of humanity’s way and of Newton’s personal feelings of responsibility for it. Determined to do something about slavery he sought God’s forgiveness and composed his inspiring song as his public confession. In turn the song inspired Lincoln’s generation to put an end to slavery.

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