1725 -1807

If you recognize the name of John Newton, you will immediately wonder why I would include him in a series on Black History.  He was not black; was involved in the slave trade; and never lived in the American colonies.  But we will note in a moment that he made a huge impact on America by bringing African music to the colonies, and one of his great songs is still one of America's favorites.

John Newton was born in England in 1725, the son of a merchant ship captain.  He began sailing with his father when he was 11-years old.  Before he was 20-years old, he became a seaman on a slave ship, and in his early 20's, became a captain of a slave ship.

The ship ran a conttinual circuit.  It left London with merchandise.  When it arrived on the African coast, they would use their wares to trade with African tribes to buy people the tribes had captured in war, and then would sell to the slave traders.  These people were crowded into the bottom of the ships in very unsanitary conditions.  Many died enroute to the Caribbean islands, where some would be sold.  They would load up with sugar, coffee and rum, then head north to the American Colonies, where they would sell the slaves, the coffee, sugar and rum; and then take products mde in the Colonies back to England.

The King of England was the largest slave trader in the world.  He required that anyone in the Colonies who had a large farm or a business to buy slaves - the number based on the size of their business.  In the south, slaves were mostliy put to work on the plantations; but some were also owned by business owners.  In the north, where slavery was abhorrent to the majority of people, they bought the slaves; allowed them to work for them until their price was paid off; and then set them free.  That is why there were a large number of free black people in the north; many of whom owned their own businesses and farms.  And by the time of the Revolutionary War, many fought side-by-side with their English neighbors.

Perhaps you have heard of the Black Brigades.  Most people, hearing that term, believe it is related to segregation.  But the Back Bridades got that nickname from the British because they were congregations led by their pastors, who went into battle dressed in their black clerical garb.  In the north, blacks and whites fought side-by-side.  Take a look at the picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to confront the British in New Jersey.  The man standing up front in that boat was a black officer in Washington's army.  Read the story of Paul Revere.  You know the story of how he waited for the signal from the steeple of the Old North Church.  Revere did not wait alone; and he did not ride alone.  He was accompanied by a black Boston businessman.  But we have gotten off track.

Back to John Newton.  In the process of his journeys, Newton began to drink excessively. - there was plenty of rum on board for the last two legs of the voyage.  He became a full-fledged alcoholic.

I will not go into all of the details, but following a harrowing experience, Newton came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and his life dramatically changed.  He quit drinking, enrolled in seminary, and eventually became an Anglican Church Priest.  In 1788 he published Thoughts Upon the slave Trade, in which he described the horrific conditions on the slave ships; and apologized for his involvement in it, in what he called, "a confession which...comes too late."  He allied himself with William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliment, in a struggle to end slavery in England and the British slave trade worldwide.  Wilberforece died just short of seeing his goal of eliminating slavery become a reality.  Newton lived just long enough to see his efforts rewarded.

But the point of this editorial has to do with music.  Newton, duiring his ministry as a priest in the Anglican Church, wrote many hymns; a number of which are still sung in our churches today.  But there is one which stands out.  As Newton plied the seas with his human cargo, he heard them sing their moanful songs down there in the bottom of the ship.  They were songs based on an African musical scale.  They are sometimes called: Black Key Songs.  Our western musical scale has seven tones: doe, ray, me, fa, so la, tee: and then "doe" is repeated again, forming an octave.  These are the white keys on the piano.  The African scale had only five note, corresponding to the black keys on a piano - hence "black key" songs.

When I was in seventh grade music, we were taught about what were called "Negro Spirituals."  They are called simply, "Spirituals."  They were songs sung by the slaves as they worked in the fields and around the plantations.  Most had a moanful tone to them.  That is because they were based on the five note African scale.  John Newton took one of those moanful tunes sung by the slaves crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the caribbean islands, and wrote the words:
    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.
Most times in our churches today, this hymn is played on the white keys.  But if you really want to experience it as Newton originally meant it; try it as a Black Key Song.

One last note: Looking at those words Newton wrote; do you see it in a different light?  Newton was rehearsing in his mind the awfulness of his early life; and the deliverance he found in Jesus Christ.

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