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January 21 through May 22, 2011
Exhibitions | Online
John Newton (1725–1807). Olney Hymns. London: W. Oliver, 1779. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan before 1913
Amazing Grace: John Newton (1725–1807). Once a slave trafficker, John Newton felt called to the ministry and wrote the most enduring hymn of all time—"Amazing Grace." He kept a copious diary of his spiritual progress.
About the Diary
Since it was first published in 1779, "Amazing Grace" has become a global anthem of deliverance, and the life of its author, John Newton, a paradigm of spiritual awakening. Arlo Guthrie closed his set at the 1969 Woodstock festival with the hymn, echoing the words sung by countless protestors in the civil rights movement, and has continued to perform it frequently. As he introduces the song, Guthrie often tells a story about its author, saying that Newton was a slave trafficker who experienced an epiphany in the middle of the ocean, turned his boat around, and brought everyone back home, memorializing his enlightenment in song. But Guthrie's version of the story, while compelling, is not accurate. While it is true that Newton played an active role in the slave trade, underwent a dramatic spiritual conversion, and wrote the lyrics to the famous hymn, his personal story—extraordinary as it is—did not unfold quite so neatly.
Index to the diary of John Newton (1725–1807), 1756–72. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan before 1913.
When the controversial preacher John Wesley came to town, Newton was energized by his example and began to feel that he, too, might be called to the ministry. As he awaited a clear calling, Newton had a choice to make: Should he follow the lead of the independent evangelicals, whose style clearly fired his soul, or seek ordination in the established church, where he found the preaching uninspired? Despite misgivings, he decided to seek Anglican ordination but had trouble securing the necessary testimonials ("they are all afraid to own a suspected Methodist"). When his application was rejected, he was crushed. He began to preach at home on Sunday evenings—first for his family, then for a handful of friends, and soon for a packed room.