MANY PEOPLE KNOW, but I did not, that the words of the hymn “”Faith’s Review and Expectation”, now better known as “Amazing Grace”, were written by John Newton (1725-1807), an Anglican clergyman. What fewer people know is that John Newton had once been the captain of ships that transported slaves across the Atlantic, but also a slave himself. In 1745, having fallen out with the crew on the ship he was sailing, he left his ship in what is now Sierra Leone. He was captured and enslaved and became the property of a princess of the Sherbro People, who lived in that part of Africa. He remained enslaved until 1748, when he was rescued by a sea captain, whom his father had sent to rescue him. On the voyage back to England, he received his spiritual calling.
Cutting a long story short, Newton was ordained as a priest in 1764. Soon after, he became the curate of a church in the small town of Olney in the north of Buckinghamshire. He remained in Olney until about 1779. While living in Olney, Newton struck up a friendship with the poet William Cowper (1731-1800; pronounced ‘koo-per’), who moved to the town in 1767. They collaborated on several literary projects.
From 1779 until his death, Newton was Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. In 1788, Newton published his “Thoughts upon the Slave Trade”, a pamphlet that described to horrors on board the slave ships crossing the Atlantic. It was also a confession of his error of having been involved in such an inhumane business. He became an ally of William Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the slave trade.
Olney is a charming little town, which we visited recently. Close to the market square, there is a large building in which William Cowper lived between 1768 and 1786. It now houses a museum dedicated to commemorating both Cowper and Newton. Behind the house, there is an attractive garden, which leads to another equally lovely garden. In the further garden, there is a small hut with white plastered walls and a tiled roof. It is just large enough for one person to sit inside it. It was here that Cowper’s friend John Newton used to sit and write. It is said that one of the hymns he wrote here in this tiny edifice was the hymn, now known by the words of its first line, “Amazing Grace”. This hymn was probably written in 1773.