Amazing Grace: from a Slave Ship to Charleston, South Carolina

emanuel church

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina

The year was 1748. John Newton, 23 years old, was returning to England from Africa on a ship named Greyhound. A feisty sailor with no interest in the Christian faith (in fact, he often derided and mocked those who believed in God and was notorious in his use of foul language), Newton had been in Sierra Leone for several years as punishment for his bad behavior as a crew member on a slave-trading ship. Now he was returning home.

As the ship sailed into the North Atlantic, a violent storm almost destroyed the Greyhound and everyone on it. Panic ensued, and there was a good deal of loud cursing. But in the midst of the howling winds, Newton was astonished to hear himself not cursing, but rather crying out to God for mercy. The ship did survive the storm, and while it was being repaired in an Irish port, John Newton, who claimed the date of that storm, March 10, 1748, as the date of his conversion, wrote the first verse of the hymn we now know as “Amazing Grace.”

Newton later looked back on this conversion experience as only a “partial” conversion, however. He cleaned up much of his life, but he saw no problem with the slave trade of his day, and soon after his conversion, he returned to the sea to captain three different slave-trading ships! It wasn’t until 1754, following a severe stroke, that he gave up sailing and slave trading. Some 34 years later, Newton would publish a pamphlet vehemently denouncing the slave trade. In it he said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” By this time, Newton had been ordained a priest in the Anglican church.

I find myself thinking today that it is possible, just possible, that some of the ancestors of the nine Christians who gathered on June 17 to study and pray together at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, may well have been part of the “cargo” on the ships captained by John Newton. But on June 17 those 9 people had not gathered to bemoan the injustices of their past history. They had gathered, rather, to experience and celebrate the amazing grace that had led them and their ancestors “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” They had gathered to give thanks and to search for ways of making God’s grace more visible in the places where they lived and worked. And they had gathered in order to share that grace with any others who might join them in seeking to experience God more fully in their lives. When Dylann Storm Roof knocked on the door of the Emanuel African Methodist Church, he was welcomed. And in the hour before the shooting began, Dylann was given a taste of God’s amazing grace.

He would experience more of that grace a few days later at the time of his arraignment, as loved ones of those he allegedly killed sat in the courtroom. Not to express their frustration and anger at another white-on-black killing. Rather, to say three simple words of grace, amazing grace: “We forgive you.”

Much of the nation watched our President at the funeral of the Rev. Pinckney on June 26. Amazing grace was the theme of his oration. Amazing grace that had sustained and nurtured the nine victims throughout their lives. Amazing grace that we, as a nation, needed to experience. Amazing grace to open our blind eyes, to find us in our lostness, to lead us to address the pressing issues of racial injustice, of gun violence, of poverty and inequality in our land.

No bagpipes played the beloved hymn. Instead, our President himself solemnly sang the familiar words and led the nation to experience, individually and collectively, something of what John Newton had experienced in his life. To experience something of what the nine victims of the massacre had experienced in their lives. To experience something of what the loved ones who forgave the alleged shooter had experienced as they sat in that courtroom. To experience something of the sweet, sweet grace of God. Amazing. And so freely given.

***

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.

***

In grateful memory of the lives of:

the Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Cynthia Hurd

Susie Jackson

Ethel Lee Lance

the Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor

Tywanza Sanders

the Rev. Daniel L. Simmons

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton

Myra Thompson

10 thoughts on “Amazing Grace: from a Slave Ship to Charleston, South Carolina

  1. “I find myself thinking today that it is possible, just possible, that some of the ancestors of the nine Christians who gathered on June 17 to study and pray together at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, may well have been part of the “cargo” on the ships captained by John Newton.”

    Whoa.

    I watched President Obama’s eulogy, and when he began to sing, “Amazing Grace,” I began to cry. The SCOTUS ruling on marriage quality earlier that day had been momentous enough, but as I listened to the President, centuries of oppression for far too many humans seemed momentarily to be washed away.

    I read once that we don’t measure our lives in years or days, but in moments. Is it possible that the horrifying moment that took those nine lives could be redeemed in the moment I was watching on television? Was this moment really enough not only to hallow the lives of those nine gathered around a table in a church basement, but also to hallow my life?

    Thank you for your wisdom in pondering and connecting the origins of “Amazing Grace” with its author, our President and the nine souls whose names you have listed here; names that our President repeated one by one after he finished singing. As you know, the organized church holds little meaning for me these days, but last Friday afternoon, I was grateful to be welcomed and accepted into the congregation of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For a moment, I felt that Something Greater had reached through my television screen and whispered, “I have found you and will never let go.” If a moment can bring death, can it also bring life? Good heavens, I need to pay better attention.

  2. I think that so many of us who watched our President sing those amazing notes, those amazing words, shared with you that sense of Something Greater reaching through our tv sets and holding us and all of our crazy world in an amazing love that keeps on searching and searching for us. Thank God for those life-giving moments. Let’s never let them go! As I pondered the tragedy and the possible connectedness of the nine lives with John Newton, I had such a profound sense of the sweep of history and of the inter-connectedness of our lives with those who’ve gone before, with those around us now, with those yet to live out their precious moments on this beloved earth. Made me, too, want to pay better attention!

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