People & Events
1725 - 1807
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You could say that John Newton was born again . . . at least several times during his life. In his youth he ridiculed Christianity, only to later become a minister. Born a free man, he was enslaved, then set free. Once the captain of a slave ship, he later denounced the slave trade, becoming a great influence in its demise.
After his mother's death when he was seven, John Newton went to English schools that prepared students for the ministry. By the age of ten, Newton was sailing on his first voyage with his father, a strict sea captain. For the young John, this life as a sailor would continue for many years.
After many voyages, including stints on a Spanish merchant ship and with England's Royal Navy, Newton found himself sailing on a slave ship. Always troublesome in his youth, Newton was discharged along the African coast, where he went to work for a slave trader. The trader's black "wife" disliked the young Newton intensely and convinced the trader that the boy should be treated as a slave. So there he worked, along with black slaves -- poorly fed, poorly clothed, unpaid -- for about a year. He was rescued by another white slave trader and later returned to England on the ship Greyhound.
It was on the Greyhound that John turned back to his Christian roots. But his refound religion didn't alter his views on slavery. Five years later, as captain of his own ship, he wrote in his journal that he was thankful for being led into "an easy and creditable way of life." And he was not alone in his way of thinking. In 1753, when he wrote the entry, the slave trade was respectable and, in England, overwhelmingly accepted.
After four years as a slave ship captain, Newton resigned his commission on the advice of his doctors. By this time his views on the trade had begun to change. Several years later, after becoming a minister, he wrote, "I think I should have quitted [the slave trade] sooner had I considered it as I now do to be unlawful and wrong. But I never had a scruple upon this head at the time; nor was such a thought ever suggested to me by any friend."
In 1770, Newton wrote these familiar words:
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 continued to speak out against the slave trade. In 1797, he stated, "If the trade is at present carried on to the same extent and nearly in the same manner, while we are delaying from year to year to put a stop to our part in it, the blood of many thousands of our helpless, much injured fellow creatures is crying against us. The pitiable state of the survivors who are torn from their relatives, connections, and their native land must be taken into account."
Just before Newton's death in 1807, the English government officially brought to a close its participation in the slave trade.
Efforts to end the slave trade
Alexander Falconbridge's account of the slave trade
Barry Unsworth on what drew Europeans to be slave traders
Barry Unsworth on the slave crew
David Blight on the meaning of British participation in the slave trade
Part 1: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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