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A Born-Again Slaver Wrote a Favorite Carter Hymn

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When Andrew Young was sworn in recently as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he quoted not from the Bible—though he is a Congregationalist minister—but from the hymn Amazing Grace. Just a few days earlier Senate Majority Leader and fiddler-by-avocation Robert Byrd had serenaded Jimmy Carter with the same tune—one of the President’s favorites—at a Washington Press Club dinner.

For an administration headed by a born-again Christian, Amazing Grace is a logical anthem. First published in the U.S. in the early 1800s, the words of the popular evangelical hymn were penned not by some waxy paragon, but by John Newton, a regenerate rake.

Born in London in 1725, Newton was the son of a devout Puritan mother, who died of consumption seven years later, and a ship’s commander father, who took the boy to sea at the age of 11. Intimidated by his father (“I am persuaded that he loved me, but he seemed not willing that I should know it”), Newton turned profligate when left on his own. He was impressed into the British navy in 1743, and became a militant and outspoken atheist. Soon he tried to desert, but was captured, stripped and flogged. In 1745 he enlisted in the slave trade, running blacks from Africa to Charleston, S.C.

Newton found redemption while steering a ship through an angry storm in 1748. He prayed for salvation, and pledged his faith when he rode out the tempest. Amazing Grace was written years later, possibly as a comment on his deliverance: “Amazing Grace (how sweet the sound) / That saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see.”

Newton, married in 1750 to his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764. He wrote some 280 hymns. He also wrote his own epitaph, which hangs on the north wall of his church, St. Mary Woolnoth in London: “John Newton…appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”