THE STORY OF 'AMAZING GRACE'
Ireland's beautiful Lough Swilly in County Donegal, along the Wild Atlantic Way, was the setting for a dramatic story which changed the life of John Newton, a foul-mouthed slave trader who went on to pen one of the most famous and well loved songs of all time - "Amazing Grace," and mentor William Wilberforce, a crusader in the abolition of slavery.
On the long and dangerous journey back to England, John Newton carelessly picked up a Christian book he found in his cabin and started reading, when suddenly, “an involuntary suggestion arose in my mind—What if these things should be true?” Horrified at the thought, he shut the book.
The next day (March 10th, 1748) the ship was caught in a violent storm. One man was swept overboard and waves crashing over the vessel caused serious damage.
“The sea had torn away the upper timbers on one side and made the ship a mere wreck in a few minutes,” wrote Newton. “Taking all the circumstances, it was astonishing, and almost miraculous that any of us survived.”
After hours pumping water from the floundering ship, Newton cried, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us!” He was instantly struck with his own words. “This thought, spoken without much reflection, was the first desire I had breathed for mercy for many years. It directly occurred, “What mercy can there be for me?”
Taking the helm, the next day, John had hours to reflect on his messed up life. “I thought there never was or could be such a sinner as myself; I concluded that my sins were too great to be forgiven.’
For weeks, the damaged ship was at the mercy of the sea and the crew was close to despair as rations ran short. All this time Newton was reading New Testament… desperate to find out if the God he had rejected for so long was real.
Finally, the wind changed. Newton wrote: “We saw the island of Tory and the next day anchored in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This was the 8th day of April, just four weeks after the damage we sustained from the sea. When we came into this port, our very last victuals was boiling in the pot; and before we had been there two hours, the wind began to blow with great violence. If we had continued at sea that night in our shattered condition, we must have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayer.”
This was the turning point of Newton's life. He stepped ashore a changed man. The crew received a warm welcome from the local villagers on the shores of Lough Swilly. Carpenters went to work repairing the ship. Meanwhile, John Newton visited the city of Derry where he stayed in an "exceeding good house" and attended prayers at Saint Columb's Cathedral twice a day. He took communion at the first opportunity, something he approached seriously as an opportunity to dedicate himself to God.
From this time, John Newton’s life began to change as he came to realise that God’s grace could save even a ‘wretch’ like him! Others soon noticed the difference when he stopped swearing and his behaviour altered. But he still had much to learn.
Despite his new-found faith, Newton continued working as a slave trader for the next six years, blinded to the evils of slavery by his culture and by self interest. Later in life he explained, “I should have been overwhelmed with distress and terror, if I had known, or even suspected, that I was acting wrongly.”
Forced for health reasons to leave the sea, Newton became a Tides' Surveyor in Liverpool in 1755. He began to grow in his Christian faith and learn from others. In Liverpool, he listened to preachers such as John Wesley who condemned the slave trade and his attitude began to change radically.
After nine years, he fulfilled his dream to became a clergyman, serving first as a curate in Olney parish church and later in London. In London in 1779, his advice was sought by many influential figures in Georgian society, among them the young M.P., William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry. Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and "serve God where he was". Wilberforce took his advice, and spent the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery.
In 1787, Newton wrote a tract supporting the campaign, 'Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade', which was very influential. It graphically described the horrors of the Slave Trade and his role in it. He later joined William Wilberforce in the campaign for abolition of the Slave Trade. In February 1807, when the act to abolish the Slave Trade finally became law, John Newton, nearly blind and near death, "rejoiced to hear the wonderful news."
For more information on Amazing Grace Country, and to find out about local tours, please visit www.amazinggrace.ie
Guided walks and tours of the Amazing Grace attractions in Buncrana are now available. Visit the Amazing Grace Park and Viewing Point and hear the story of John Newton re-told by a local historian or tailor-make a tour to focus on a particular aspect of the story (history, music, social justice, spiritual significance, etc.).
The minimum charge for a guided walking tour is €5 per person (under 12s go free). Use the form below to contact us for future information.