The ‘AMAZING GRACE EXPERIENCE’ Museum/Visitors’ Centre in Sandy Point, St. Kitts, which chronicles the life of John Newton – author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ – is still a novelty in St Kitts. Too few islanders are aware of Newton’s sojourn here and what it meant to world culture and the abolition of the Slave Trade.
Many have heard that Newton was a slave trader and that he wrote the familiar hymn “Amazing Grace”. They have often found difficulty in blending the two experiences…one a hateful profession and the other a stirringly soulful hymn that has touched a nerve in communities and individuals alike around the globe.
But Newton himself explains the dichotomy on his epitaph, composed by him, which reads
“Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa
Was by the rich mercy
Of our Lord and Saviour
Preserved, restored, pardoned
And appointed to preach the faith
he had long laboured to destroy.”
The hymn “Amazing Grace” which was wrung from him after torturous experiences in his private life, near death experiences at sea and his awakening to Christian life and principles, speaks of the joy of redemption and its theme is oft echoed on the lips of persons when they say, “There but for the grace of God goeth I”
This hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, is now part of world culture, and has united participants in such significant events as the Martin Luther King Jr. march, the Nelson Mandela’s triumphant release from prison, and the 9/11 World Trade Towers catastrophe. It is reported that there are some 972 arrangements of this hymn and history will show that it has been soulfully sung by practically every singer of note from Mahalia Jackson to Elvis Pressley to Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklyn, Diana Ross, Susan Boyle and even present day singers of The Voice and X factor. Joan Baez opened US Live Aid Concert with it in 1985, raising funds which led to the feeding of millions in Africa. It has even been used by mothers as a lullaby for fractious children.
So how is all this relevant to St. Kitts and why is a museum celebrating the life of John Newton located here?
In the 1750’s, John Newton landed at Pump Bay, Sandy Point as a sea captain and Slave Trader. Prior to that a near death experience in a storm at sea had made him turn to God for deliverance but it was in St Kitts that his faith became strengthened through his association with another sea captain Alexander Clunie who landed here with gunpowder for the major fortress Brimstone Hill. The Cowper and Newton Museum (Britain) speaks of this ”important acquaintance in St. Kitts who had a profound effect on him”.
“Under the influence of Clunie, Newton’s understanding of his faith became more focused. Said Newton
“I was all ears and what was better, he not only informed my understanding but his discourses inflamed my heart.”
For nearly a month the two met alternately on board each other’s ship. Although Newton had read and re-read the Bible and other religious books such as Hervey’s ‘Meditations’ and Scougal’s ‘Life of God in the Soul of Man’, meeting Clunie turned an intellectual exercise into a more outward expression of his faith. With encouragement Newton began to pray aloud. Clunie also gave him addresses of others from whom to seek further instruction. Newton lost no time and began, in June 1754, a series of letters to Dr David Jennings. He also kept in touch with Clunie; his letters between 1761 and 1770 were later published as ‘The Christian Correspondent’, in which Newton paid him this tribute:
“Your conversation was much blessed to me at St. Kitt’s, and the little knowledge I have of men and things took its first rise from thence.”
When John Newton returned to England he became an Anglican ordained minister. Among those he mentored was a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. So moved was Wilberforce by his mentorship that he contemplated leaving politics for the ministry and sought the advice of Newton.
It is recorded that 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. Both Newton and Wilberforce became strong advocates for the abolition of the Slave Trade.
“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, 82, nearly blind and near death, “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news.” (The Abolition Project)
From the above, one can follow the role St. Kitts played in John Newton’s conversion, his decision to become a priest, his mentoring of William Wilberforce and eventually how all this influenced the abolition of the Slave Trade.
This is all tastefully displayed at the “Amazing Grace Experience” Visitors Centre in the upgraded Lighthouse Baptist Church at Sandy Point. It is a “must see” experience for all students and visitors ranking closely behind Brimstone Hill in educational importance. Already it is being given 4 and 5 star assessment status by visitors in TripAdvisor.
Through videos and panels, the recording of the life of John Newton is well displayed. Nostalgic symbols from his ship and his experience supplement the aura of a seafaring and slave associated adventure.
Kudos must go to Stephen and Janet Oldershaw, the British director-owners of a Christian family business company who initiated the idea of supporting an exhibition to show the links between the writer of one of the world’s most popular Christian songs and the Caribbean island St. Kitts. He said the company was keen to support the initiative. “Having benefited from the Caribbean business trade, we felt it was good to give something back to the island and to let them benefit from what we are doing as a tourist attraction. We felt it would be unique to them.”