Amazing Grace – slow burn discipleship?

Amazing Grace – slow burn discipleship?

As we approach the hymn’s 250th anniversary, how does John Newton’s slow journey towards justice speak to us?

The unnamed: View of chained African enslaved persons in the cargo hold of a slave ship, such as those captained by John Newton, measuring three feet and three inches high (New York Public Library)

Today, 23 August, is the UN’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Cathy Ross reflects on the realities of the slave trade and her own discipleship through the lens of an ex-slave trader who is part of the fabric of CMS.

John Newton is best known for his hymn Amazing Grace, written 250 years ago. I attended an event to celebrate this back in July at the church where he had been the curate.

My knowledge of John Newton was sketchy – slave ship captain who converted to Christianity who wrote this well known hymn; member of the Eclectic Society that led to the founding of CMS way back in 1799.

So I was shocked to learn that after his conversion (as a result of a shipwreck) he continued to invest in the slave trade! I had imagined that once he was converted he would immediately see the evils of the slave trade, repent and change his ways. But it was several years before he did so. 

He said, “custom, example and interest had blinded my eyes”. 

Ouch! That got me thinking where has custom, example and interest blinded my eyes? Any ideas?

Well, an obvious example, and perhaps even more obvious after this summer, is climate change and global warming. How much have I really changed my lifestyle to protect our beautiful planet? Am I willing to forgo overseas holidays and travel by car, not eat meat, consume less, waste less water; or to be honest has custom, example and interest blinded my eyes? Perhaps my discipleship is not unlike Newton’s?

I also learned that Newton’s ships transported 468 slaves. Or rather “enslaved persons” as the 1619 project explains so compellingly. The 1619 project describes a new American origins story beginning in August 1619 (rather than 4 July 1776 with the American War of Independence) when a ship arrives in Virginia carrying a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved people from Africa.

They state that the term ‘enslaved person’ more accurately conveys the reality of being a slave without stripping them of their personhood or humanity.

I did not know that Newton’s ships had transported 468 enslaved persons. Nor do I know their names. They are 468 of the roughly 12.5 million enslaved persons who were transported in the Middle Passage.

Whose names do I not know? Whose voices am I unaware of? How slow a burn is my discipleship?

Prof Anthony Reddie, Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture at Regent’s Park College in Oxford, spoke at this event and he began his presentation in the afternoon by telling us he was not really interested in John Newton. A provocative opening for a celebration dedicated to celebrating John Newton! 

No, Anthony was more interested in the nameless 468 enslaved persons who had been transported by Newton. Fair enough, I thought. This is the history we need to hear. The history that reminds us that our government borrowed the equivalent of 40 per cent of the Treasury’s annual income to compensate the owners of enslaved persons (not the enslaved persons themselves!) when they were freed, and that this was only paid off in 2015! 2015! How is this possible? So descendants of enslaved persons have been helping to pay off their owners? Is the world mad? When we see the profits energy companies are making, yes I think so. The system is broken. 

What are we going to do about it? I felt simultaneously encouraged and enraged that John Newton took years to see the evils of the slave trade after his conversion. Encouraged that he did eventually see; enraged that it took him so long. Maybe this is a kind of slow burn discipleship. 

But at least he did see it and then he did something – he became an abolitionist. What are the issues I need to face and do something about? I could name many -isms – I think you know the drill. 

But let’s get close and personal. What injustices do I see near me? Whose names do I not know? Whose voices am I unaware of? How slow a burn is my discipleship?

Dr Cathy Ross is leader of CMS Pioneer Mission Training Oxford.

Get our email newsletter: