So we tear down the man who wrote Amazing Grace?

So we tear down the man who wrote Amazing Grace?


norman lebrecht

June 13, 2020

The English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725–1807) was press-ganged into the Navy as a lad and wound up on the wrong side of the Atlantic, where he began trading in slaves.

He carried on at this pursuit until well into his 30s, when he had a spiritual revelation and became ordained as a priest.

His legacy includes two great hymns – “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”. Newton became a passionate campaigner for the abolition of slavery and this first of his hymns was embraced by many African-American denominations.

But he started out as a slaver, right?

So, by present logic, his statue ought to be torn down.
Along with that of George Washington, who bought and sold slaves all his life.


  • Manuela Hoelterhoff says:

    Manuela Hoelterhoff
    In olden days when I strayed into the Metropolitan Museum as a clothed and gay woman I always felt marginalized and humiliated. Please keep the place shut.

  • A says:

    A pretty poor choice as an example, since as you point out he specifically campaigned against (and attempted to atone for his part in) the trade in which he started. Quite a different matter from the numerous examples of slave traders who then proceeded to use the wealth attained through exploitation of those races they considered inferior to enhance the lives of the race(s) they considered deserving of their philanthropic tendencies.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Just the point I was prepared to make: Newton saw the error of his ways and repented; it is not at all clear that Colston’s philanthropy was done as penitence. Or did he ever write anything indicating regret for having worked for the Royal African Company?

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Threaten us with more barbarians holding truncheons to our heads and jackboots to our backsides and we’ll pretty soon see ‘the error of our ways’.

    • Maria says:

      Yes, but where do we stop? None of us or life today or in the past or future is, was or will be perfect. We are all flawed human beings. There will always be people in position of power but to use one’s gift of power is to use it kindly, not as weapon, is far more beneficial than pulling down every statue in sight one simply doesn’t approve of.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It’s mainly dogs which go to the statues today. Nobody pays them much attention, but they sure will when somebody wants to re-arrange history.

        Self-appointed moral guardians and vigilantes are the most terrifying people; the irony is that they’re from the Left – the very cohort opposed to censorship not so many decades ago. Didn’t see that coming…!!!

    • V.Lind says:

      So helping poor white people in Victorian times was wrong?

      Look: ignoring people’s participation, as transporters, “owners,” exploiters of any sort in the slave trade is wrong. Or in any systematic abuse of peoples, as in colonialism.

      But so is ignoring anything good that they did, as if the slave trade was the only aspect of their lives. By all means get the statues down and into museums clearly marked with their history in the slave trade — and whatever else they did. Replace them in the public square with statues of people without sin. (Coming up — empty landscapes).

      A lot needs to be done. It starts with education: but it does not start with rewriting history, or airbrushing it. It means admitting whole truths, not just the ones that bolster an argument.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        ” Replace them in the public square with statues of people without sin.”

        Throw the first stone, etc…

      • Shalom says:

        It’s still currently acceptable in Israel.

        “By the 1990’s Israel was established as a destination country for trafficking, and international sex trafficking victims had replaced the local market,” Hughes wrote. “Israel’s flesh trade was booming and making between half a billion to three quarters of a billion dollars a year. It was a particularly desirable market for traffickers because the purchase of sexual services was, and still is, legal in Israel. ”

        Source from 2013-October:

      • Afro says:

        Looking forward to the MLK statues being defaced and razed along with all the crime-infested MLK Boulevards being cleaned up and renamed.

        They all end up being trashed out by their own race after all the expensive hype anyway.

        They are an affront to taxpayers of all races.

  • Always the same here says:

    I think there is a bias against blacks here. Whenever they are mentioned on this site or their issues come up it is painted mostly negatively. Please treat them as you treat women.

  • Sharon says:

    There is some evidence that Columbus, although apparently a believing Christian, was ethnically Jewish.

    From what I know of his writings he had originally wanted to be kind to the Native Americans but enslaved them to mine for gold, and the women for sex, to prevent a mutiny of his men who came with him on the journey in the hope of getting rich as well as their anger for the killings of men that were left behind on Columbus’ first journey (even though it may have been in retaliation or self defense).

    When Columbus was the administrator of the area he cracked down very hard not only on the Native Americans but on European settlers as well, perhaps at least partially because he was insecure about his convert status.

    If I remember the story correctly he had the tongue cut out of a woman who complained that he did not deserve to be govenor of the area because he was not nobility. The European settlers complained about him and eventually he was removed from the post.

    To the extent that Columbus is venerated it is because he brought Christianity and “civilization” to the “New World”. However, we look at things differently today.

    If I recall the previous Pope had initially planned to visit the Dominican Republic on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery. The trip was cancelled, apparently because it finally occurred to the Vatican how imperialist and racist this would look–the Pope would be celebrating a guy who was directly and indirectly (through deaths through disease) for the deaths of thousands of people. I believe within 50 years of Columbus’ discovery the tribe of Native Americans, the Arawaks, that he originally discovered was wiped out through disease.

    Of course, Columbus also symbolizes the beginning of colonialism in the the Americas.

    The major “good” contributions of Columbus the man was that he was also an intellectual pioneer in navigation and geography.

    Should his statues be torn down? For the most part Columbus statues were erected to celebrate what today would be termed “cultural imperialism”, the introduction of European culture in the Americas, not to celebrate colonialism or political or economic empire.

    Perhaps people would be less offended if statues were erected near Columbus statues of leaders of Native Americans.

    As you know, Norman, statues are forbidden in Orthodox Judaism. An ultra Orthodox Jew would not even give a doll to a child without defacing it in some way. This is to prevent idol worship or the appearance of it.

    Nevertheless, as we have seen in this case, there are important political reasons against statues as well!

  • M McAlpine says:

    Of course, this would be the verdict of those who have no sense of history beyond the length of their nose. The fact that, after his conversion to Christianity, Newton became an opponent of slavery and the mentor of William Wilberforce will no doubt escape the minds of unthinking liberals. In fact, deeply repentant for his past role in the slave trade, Newton became the star witness for the abolitionist cause when in January 1788 published his sensational and highly influential pamphlet, ‘Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade’. This was a first hand account of the horrors of the slave trade by a man who, on his own admission, had taken part in what he called “a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive as the African Slave trade.” Newton continued to campaign against the slave trade until his death in 1807, receiving with joy the news that at last Wilberforce’s bill for abolition had been passed by Parliament.
    So of course the case of Newton is one of a man with a terrible past who came through to a wonderful enlightenment. As he wrote:
    “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
    That saved a wretch like me!”
    He certainly had reason to be thankful for the grace of God as when you read his autobiography it is clear he had wandered further from it than most. But then I believe there is a parable that the repentant tax collector found grace whereas the proud, self-righteous pharisee did not?

  • Eleanor says:

    For crying out loud: the statues can be displayed in a museum with detailed information attached. Nobody is trying to re-write history.

  • bash says:

    The fact that Washington, Jefferson and others honored in American history owned slaves is not the issue with taking down statues in the US.

    Washington’s history with his slaves, not anything to praise, is spelled out in a display at Independence Hall at the site where his slaves used to work. It is there for every visitor to read. Comparing a young man press ganged onto a British slave trading ship who then went on to fight slavery for most of the rest of his life to a Southern plantation slave owner is really quite a a stretch.

    The argument for removing statues of men like Lee, Davis, Bragg and others that appear in the Southern American states is that they were traitors to their country. They led an army that attempted to break the union. And they were the losers. In most other countries they would have been executed. Washington and the others, despite owning slaves, built the union. They died before they had to choose which side of history to represent.

    Where do you hang your Nazi flags in Britain? Tell me where your monuments to Kim Philby are in Britain. Or maybe Oswald Mosley. I want to lay some wreathes.

  • Glenn Winters says:

    This post has such tenuous connection to classical music that I’m not sure it belongs in a classical music newsletter. Perhaps you could fill your spare time with a blog about politics.

  • BrianB says:

    “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”–George Orwell 1984

  • It is said he wrote the song. However, he did not compose the melody – it’s a folk tune, most likely and old Scottish one.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    India today has the highest number of slaves in any part of the world. Do you know that, or even care? Or do ‘people of colour’ get a special dispensation? (I think we all know the answer to that.)

    • Roslyn Pittoni says:

      Sue, this is the point I have been saying at work. Learn from the past so that we can change the present and future. Instead of getting so het up about a statue, lets stop the slavery which is happening today.

  • Joy says:

    What a stupid comparison. John Newton saw what he was doing was wrong and then worked to abolish the slave trade. He didn’t write Amazing Grace as a slave trader. Indeed, the words tell of his revelation.

    The point about statues, specifically, is that they honour their subject, and in some cases venerate people who bought and sold human beings. They are also symbolic of the white-washing of history in general. Statues are predominantly of white men. They don’t provide context. They belong in museums, where a more rounded history about the subject can be given.

  • Wendy says:

    Woops, sorry folks but all that is coming across to me is the deep hatred embittered.
    What is easier; to build a pack of cards or tear them down.
    All that man will achieve this way showing, is to end up destroying everything, everything will get ripped up and burned down, then where will we be???? We hope to go forward nor backwards.

    • Roslyn Pittoni says:

      It is George Orwell “1984” in real life”.

    • Roslyn Pittoni says:

      I found the “1984” quote.
      “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

  • Edgar Self says:

    I like th quotation from John Newton in the heading illustration, thanking God that he is not the man he used to be.

  • CPTL says:

    “But he started out as a slaver, right? So, by present logic, his statue ought to be torn down.”

    Sounds like a snide generalization, more so than a logical point, and helps nothing.

  • Roberto De Leon-Gonzalez says:

    If we are to condemn a man for his former life, we should condemn Paul, the Apostle, formerly known as Saul. Yet we do not, for his conversion and later works make up for his previous sins.

  • Christine Fridell says:

    John Newton, changed his life around, should we not do the same, and stop throwing the stones around. Let us remember this, and not tear down this historic statue, but learn from it!