Novelist Christine Schaub's review of Amazing Grace, the movieI sat in the movie theatre, staring at the screen with more than a little bit of worry. Walden Media’s film “Amazing Grace” had been playing for forty minutes, and John Newton was about to make his entrance. Would the filmmakers get it right? Or would they perpetuate the myth?
You see, I’ve published the most recent book on Newton (The Longing Season, July 2006)—a fauxography shelved under historical fiction. I researched the man and his iconic song, studied his autobiography and multiple biographies, visited his hometown, walked where he walked. The self-proclaimed infidel’s life is heavily documented, and yet the myth of John Newton prevails. Why? I think people find the “pulpit version” more exciting, more intriguing…maybe more incredible. And thus, Newton’s conversion more spectacular.
The myth goes something like this: a young and successful John Newton captains yet another slave ship through the Middle Passage, a powerful storm comes up and Newton strikes a bargain with God—save their lives and he’ll set all the captives free. God calms the sea, Newton converts to Christianity on the spot and holds up his end of the deal by not only freeing his slaves, but giving up the slave trade forever. He heads back to England, becomes a preacher and spends the rest of his life writing famous songs, like “Amazing Grace.” None of that is true.
Newton was young—twenty-three—when a storm at sea made him question his life choices. But he was sailing as a passenger on a ship carrying ivory, gold, beeswax…and not a single slave. His conversion in the following months was anything but sudden. And, critically, he became a slave ship captain only after he became a Christian. Newton captained slave ships for just two years until illness, not conscience, grounded him from seafaring. Twenty-four years later, he wrote the text of “Amazing Grace” for a New Year’s Day service. Another decade passed before William Wilberforce knocked on Newton’s parish door and invited the well-known vicar into the fight for abolition.
Turns out, Walden got it mostly right. They cast the great Albert Finney as Newton, roughed him up and had him mopping his church floors. I suppose they thought an old preacher in sackcloth was more convincing as a former slave-trader. In truth, Newton was rather refined, but liked to refer to his former wretched self as an example of what God’s life-changing power can do. Finney, however, is brilliant in the role. The movie does a good job explaining that the commerce of slave trading was not a moral issue to the majority of Britons.
The filmmakers’ greatest error is having the movie’s central figure—William Wilberforce—introduce his impromptu singing of “Amazing Grace” with an attribute to “…my old preacher-friend who was a slave ship captain for twenty years…” Not true—but it flashes by so quickly, most viewers won’t catch it.
I like to tell readers The Longing Season is a good primer to the film version of “Amazing Grace.” My book introduces the conflicted young man who becomes one of many powerful voices for humanity decades later. The subjects of slavery and redemption are still weighty and poignant today, and there’s nothing like a good read and an afternoon in a darkened theatre to explore one’s mind and soul.