When President Obama turned to the soaring lyrics of Amazing Grace to comfort the grieving families in Charleston, South Carolina this week, he was turning to a song that is almost as much of a staple of the U.S. Presidency as Hail to the Chief. Yet, as there is so often when race is the topic, the back story behind the hymn that is suddenly everywhere is not so simple.
Amazing Grace was written by an Englishman who in the early part of his life was an outspoken atheist, libertine, and slave trader. John Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a Puritan mother and a stern ship commander father who took him to sea when he was 11 (“I am persuaded that he loved me but he seemed not willing that I should know it,” he later wrote).
By 1745, Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. At that time he wrote the autobiographical Amazing Grace, along with 280 other hymns.
Today Amazing Grace is beloved by Presidents and citizens alike and remains a go-to hymn at American funerals, because of its striking melodies and ever-popular narrative of personal redemption. The born-again Jimmy Carter was the first recent President to embrace Amazing Grace, singing it with everyone from Willie Nelson to Senate Majority leader Robert Byrd.
But this spiritual is nonpartisan. It was performed at the funeral of Ronald Reagan by Ronan Tynan and at Gerald Ford’s funeral by a single bagpiper. At Richard Nixon’s funeral, Billy Graham quoted from Amazing Grace in his eulogy and told the story of John Newton, crediting him for later working to end the English slave trade.
Race is the moëbius strip of American life, always turning and eating its own tail. President Obama may have thought he was choosing a lovely hymn to comfort the afflicted, which he surely did. But, as always, salvation is not so simple.
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