Let’s start this one off by clearing up a few things. First, I am religious. This article is in no way, shape, or form a dig at religion. Second, this is not a call to cancel a song because of its author. Amazing Grace is a great song. It’s beautiful, the melody is perfect for harmonizing, and it’s uplifting. I can remember the chills I experienced singing it in large groups and listening to the sound fill whatever space we were in. Music was integral to my spirituality growing up. This simple hymn had such an impact on me as a child and coiled itself around some of my most deeply-held beliefs about myself — for better or for worse.
I remember vividly going to see the movie with my mother. I have fond memories of this outing, both because I loved the song and because it was a pleasant, windy fall afternoon that I got to spend with a wonderful person. Also, I didn’t know Benedict Cumberbatch at the time, but he was great in this movie and, on a deeper level, the narrative — however glamorized and polished — opened my eyes to some of the absolute horrors of the logistics of the slave trade, like the conditions on the ships, how pervasive the “business” was, and how entrenched it had become, especially amongst the politically powerful.
So, when I grew up and looked a little deeper into the song that I had loved, I began to ask myself who this guy was who wrote it, this John Newton. I gotta say, I didn’t like what I found. Not one bit. It was not the slick conversion story presented to me by the movie.
What popular culture had told me was that John Newton was a slaver who converted to Christianity and then immediately stopped selling humans, becoming an abolitionist, and was a crucial piece of the practice’s eventual downfall. It was the ultimate conversion story. The full 180 degree turn from participating in the worst evils imaginable to being a key player in abolishing them. The problem is, this is just plain false. According to the man’s own words, he called himself a Christian but, in retrospect had to discount a number of years from his faith because he continued to actively participate in the slave trade even after his conversion, and for a number of years even after writing the song.
Therein lies the problem. Setting aside whether or not sin of that inhumane magnitude should be forgiven in the first place, in any religious formulation, Newton was still actively participating in that horrid “business” when he wrote the song, so what exactly was he blind to that he now saw? What exactly was he saved from? It’s not like he just needed an attitude shift that evolved inconsistently until it took root permanently, it was an abject evil that he was either participating in or not.
While Newton is often portrayed as a penitent man who later atoned for his sins, the overplayed conversion narrative cuts to the heart of why this song is so difficult for me to take seriously anymore. Christianity seems to have a love affair with finding the most unimaginably awful person, and begging the question, “can God save even them?” Maybe this is part of the allure of the song, that it was written by such a prime example of evil.
A monolithic example of this conversion obsession is the apostle Paul, a figurehead in the new testament who had a miraculous conversion after serving as a literal head hunter of religious people. There is also the perennial theological discourse about whether Hitler could have been saved, which often assumes a level of total forgiveness that I’m not comfortable thinking about. Yes, it’s a cognitive spiritual exercise, but it’s telling all the same.
This obsession with conversion encourages practicing believers to be distracted from the systemic, big picture evils in favor of offering equal grace to everybody, no matter their crimes. Sometimes, it even gaslights people if they don’t give as much grace to the people in their lives who are actively harming others. It allows the status quo to be continued by guilting people into being more forgiving than they probably should be, or at the very least, conflating grace with having no boundaries or consequences.
The Christian Bible itself even says that the more you’re forgiven of, the more you are able to love. I get it. Be open to forgiving people, be generous to those you disagree with, this is a core lesson that I think we can stand to hear more. However, there is a limit. There is no world where John Newton gets to write this song from a genuine place, or benefit from the Luke 7:47 maxim about being forgiven much. It’s so disingenuous. He made loads of money both as a captain of a slaving ship and later as an investor. He spent years of his life doing this even after he converted to Christianity. Later, he retired, and THEN chose to speak out about it? C’mon. That’s like Warren Buffett retiring from investing and then writing a book about how evil it is.
Then, to put a nail in the proverbial coffin, the guy gets ordained and is considered by some to be a hero of the faith. What?! I don’t care if he personally ended the slave trade single-handedly. He made his living transporting human beings in awful, sometimes fatal conditions, sold them into slavery for profit, and then transitioned into investing in other people completing this same awful cycle. He shouldn’t be ordained in any scenario.
The core theme here is not that we should be unforgiving curmudgeons. The theme here is that there’s a limit where grace can be used disproportionately to make oppressors feel better about themselves. There’s a difference between accepting someone who has an opinion you find objectionable, and using grace as a means to never have consequences for your sin or to maintain the status quo. This applies equally to people who lived with different historical cultural norms. I firmly believe that everyone who lived back in Newton’s day had an abolitionist in their life, they just chose not to listen. Cultural norms were different, yes, but people still had a conscience and there have always been revolutionaries and counter-cultural voices.
The fact of the matter is that life isn’t simple, so neither should grace be. There are people whose behavior legitimately makes their acceptance at the table a harm to everyone else sitting there trying to enjoy their life-sustaining meal. Forgiveness doesn’t mean having no boundaries. In my personal life, this is a lesson I have had to learn the hard way.
I struggled in my early life with setting boundaries, and in many ways my faith didn’t help. I was constantly preached at to be generous to everyone and leave room in my heart even for the worst people, but then for some reason that came with truly random, mind-boggling caveats, like not include gay people in that acceptance, or Democrats, but it did include…John Newton, ‘cuz he wrote a great song. My problem isn’t grace, even the amazing variety, it’s how it is applied and sometimes used inconsistently to leverage power.
And that’s another problem with broadly applying the song itself. It led me to falsely equate myself with a Newtonian level of wretchedness. Newton was the most vile, wretched thing you can be, a human trafficker and slaver who made his living transporting human beings in such terrible conditions that they often died in transit. That is a “wretch” true to the words of the song. None of us rise to that level, and that’s a huge problem with the foundation of much Christian theology stemming from this song. It encourages people to view themselves primarily as the most bad, awful person imaginable who deserves hell.
As a person who struggles with depression and anxiety, I did not benefit from this foundational self-hatred, it wasn’t healthy. The guilt I felt for existing kept clawing me back to the grace I was offered. I think this is why the song stuck with me all of these years, it soothed my underlying self-loathing, but I never stopped to think if I needed as much grace as I had been told, or if I needed to be offering as much as I was to people who continued to hurt me.
Sometimes we are not the evils we believe ourselves to be, and sometimes too much grace can be an excuse for those in power to overlook certain huge moral failures while impugning other minor perceived ones, or on a personal level, it can allow people to consume and disrupt your life until you set healthy boundaries.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” He wrote those words while still being heavily, actively invested in the slave trade. I just can’t get over that. That’s not to say that I pass judgment on anyone for appreciating the song or that is should be canceled. It’s still a lovely song. I just personally can’t get over that hypocrisy and I don’t think the song will ever be the same for me. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth now; an emptiness.
Grace, in its purest form, is in fact amazing. I have experienced this in my own life, both in giving and receiving it. However, making the concept truly unconditional, and not spending the time to qualify that grace does not mean zero consequences or boundaries, only benefits those already in power, those who, generally speaking, need truly unconditional grace the most, to keep the status quo running.