It's Black History Month, a good time to learn about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Jackie Robinson, and a host of others.
Let me tell you about a white man who made his way into black history. Imagine a slave ship captain, a cruel Englishman who acquired slaves from Africa and transported them in horrific slave ships to be sold like animals at auction.
Imagine that this man later writes lyrics which become the most popular song of English-speaking blacks in the entire world.
If you've got eight minutes, watch this powerful video of Wintley Phipps, explaining the piano "black notes" then singing the song that Englishman wrote. (You won't regret it.) Then read on about the man below.
Disclaimer: someone pointed out that the tune we sing Amazing Grace to now is likely quite different than the original, and that the current tune and Newton’s text did not come together until 1835, 28 years after Newton’s death. If the singer is wrong on that point, you can still enjoy the music lesson about slave spirituals, and just enjoy the song itself. The part about John Newton is true. (See below)
As you saw, that song is "Amazing Grace." Some black churches sing it every Sunday. Sometimes it goes on and on, for ten or fifteen minutes. Many African-Americans love that song more than any other…even though it was written by a white man who sold black slaves and treated them like filth.
What can explain this? The same thing that explains how Christians throughout the centuries have treasured the letters of Paul, who zealously murdered Christians. It's built-in to the message:
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.
The man who abused those slaves and the man who wrote that song were both named John Newton. Both shared the same DNA, but the songwriter was a new man. He became a pastor and labored to oppose the slave trade. Check out the great movie Amazing Grace, and see what Newton, 82 years old and blind, said shortly before he died, something I often think about and am always stirred by: "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."