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.
-John Newton, December 1772
I always thought that “Amazing Grace” was a Negro spiritual. The simple beauty of the hymn, I imagined, was an expression of the appeal of faith to a displaced people. My mental image was of the healing power of song and belief in the long held promise of the deliverance from suffering. Aretha Franklin, Paul Robeson, and Mahalia Jackson have all recorded versions of this song. Their versions are just part of the over 1700 versions of the song listed on www.allmusic.com.
Today, reading “Bury the Chains” by Adam Hochschild, my “Amazing Grace” assumption was left in pieces.
John Newton, the author of this hymn was a slave trader. He sailed the triangle in the 1700’s from London, to West Africa, to the East Indies. He carried slaves, sugar, and tobacco. There is no evidence of him being an exceptionally cruel slave trader, although, like other traders of his time, he presided over massive cruelty and human suffering. Slave ships were packed with slaves in disease ridden and dirty conditions. Many slaves died on route to the East Indies. Conditions were so bad that captains were constantly fighting two things: slave revolts, and slaves trying to end their lives to escape bondage. They addressed both through extreme force and intimidation.
The point of this post is not to horrify with details of the slave trade, but to talk about the great power of the human mind to ignore suffering. John Newton, was, by all accounts at the time, a kind and religious man. He was good to his wife, didn’t drink or take prostitutes and eventually retired from the slave trade to pursue a career as a minister in the Anglican Church. He was a devoted and fervent believer who made his name by writing hymns, such as “Amazing Grace.” It’s hard to understand, from a modern perspective, how his roles as slave trader and hymn writer are reconcilable.
There were some very isolated instances of opposition to the slave trade around this time, like the Quakers, but the majority of society did not consider it to be wrong. In fact, it was part of the culture. The example of John Newton is most striking because it speaks of an entire culture that is morally depraved yet entirely insulated from introspection.
I wonder what we co-exist with today that exudes this same type of deep, societal, hypocrisy. Part of me thinks that it is the way we confine and treat animals. I often find it too difficult to think about the conditions that our beef, milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, pork and other animal products are raised in. I know about animal confinement, but I actively ignore it at times, especially at this time of year. What would it be like, if at the dinner table at your in-law’s house, you were to say something about the way that the Christmas ham is treated? I am not capable, at most times, of broaching this subject around friends and family that serve me food. In some ways, it’s a betrayal of our social contract, but should it be?