The movie Amazing Grace is now available on video. I saw it in Boston when it first came out in theatres with a group of about twenty of us connected to the Traces of the Trade project. It was a powerful experience. It focuses on the efforts of white Europeans to abolish the slave trade; particularly William Wilberforce.Though it focuses upon but one aspect of the long struggle by people-both black and white-to overcome the institution of slavery, I recommend the film. It is well done.

For another perspective, read David Trimble’s recommendation. I find Mr. Trimble’s blog fascinating in that he’s written a novel, Lest Ye Be Judged, set against the backdrop of the turmoil engulfing the modern Episcopal Church, the church of my ancestors, the most successful slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.

The title for Amazing Grace comes from the song by John Newton, the story of which embodies part of what is so complicated about the legacy of slavery, the role of churches and Christians in the slave trade, slavery, and what has followed (Jim Crow, prejudice, racism today).

I learned much-and much that surprised me-from the book Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song, by Steve Turner. The first half of the book is the story of Newton and his writing of the song. The second half is about the life of the song itself and how it evolved from the words Newton wrote to the classic it has become. It is Turner’s book I recommend even more than the film if you want to dig deeply into this complicated journey we humans have traversed with some becoming masters while others were enslaved.

I quote from Turner’s book (pp. 49-50):

The folk myth version of John Newton’s life goes something like this: He was a slave captain whose ship was hit by a severe storm. Terrified by the prospect of death he vowed to abandon the trade if his life was spared. He avoided death and, true to his word, set his cargo of slaves free, left the trade, and devoted his life to writing songs.

It’s a lovely story but is a mixture of telescoped events and untruths. He wasn’t the captain of the ship caught in the Atlantic storm, which didn’t have slaves on board, anyway, and he didn’t return to Africa in this ship. Newton was challenged by the prospect of death but made no vows. He didn’t leave the slave trade immediately following his conversion and never organized the release of any Africans that he had been responsible for enslaving. Crucially, his captaincy of slave ships didn’t begin until after he had become a Christian.

The changes in his outlook and behavior came slowly and painfully. He slipped back into his old habits as often as he surged forward.

Like almost everyone of his generation he saw nothing inherently wrong with slavery and therefore no inconsistency in participating in it as a follower of Jesus.