Children's Literature Bookshelf

“Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn,” by Linda Granfield, illustrated by Janet Wilson. Tundra Books, Toronto, 1997, 32 pages, Grades 3-5.

“Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn,” by Linda Granfield, illustrated by Janet Wilson.
Tundra Books, Toronto, 1997, 32 pages, Grades 3-5.

A particularly dark period in American life was the transportation and enslavement of Africans to the New World. A financially lucrative triangle developed between Europe, Africa and the New World.

In this horrible arrangement, ships went from Europe to Africa. There they bought slaves from African leaders and paid these leaders with advanced European goods such as firearms. Then, they packed the slaves into ships and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.

This second section of the triangle is called “The Middle Passage.” After the slaves were sold in the Americas, the final part of the triangle back to Europe occurred. Now the ships were filled with rum, cotton or other agricultural products from the Americas.

The captains of the slave ships were particularly reprehensible men motivated by greed. In what must be one of the most remarkable conversion stories of all times, one slaver, Captain John Newton, repents his evil life and becomes a minister. He lives out his days preaching the Gospel and writing against slavery.

Newton composes music as well and writes one of the most spiritually moving songs of all time. The name of the song is “Amazing Grace.”

Linda Granfield tells the story of how Newton changes from greedy, vile sea captain to a minster seeking to do God’s will. The name of this powerful book is “Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn.”

As a young boy, John Newton (1725-1807) grows up reading the Bible and studying Latin. His mother hopes the boy will become a minister. The child’s father, on the other hand, is a sea captain, travelling the oceans for profitable cargo. He takes his son to sea when the boy is 11.

For the next number of years John Newton is torn between his religious upbringing and the profits of slave trading.  He eventually succumbs to the desire to make money and actively engages in slave trading.

In a bizarre twist of circumstances, he is sold into slavery by a slave trader in Sierra Leone at the age of 19. There, he is brutally treated as a slave on a lime tree plantation. After 15 months, he was freed by another sea captain. Not having learned much, Newton returns to slave trading.

In 1754, after surviving a death-defying storm in the Atlantic Ocean, Newton turns his life over to God and begs for forgiveness for his many sins. In the remaining years of his long life, he will preach and write against the evils of slavery and compose many hymns, the most famous being “Amazing Grace.”

How does all this happen?

How does grace transform this selfish man into an instrument God can use to preach the Gospel? Why does the song “Amazing Grace” continue to touch the hearts of millions of people? Does the song speak to your need for God’s grace and mercy? It certainly does for me.

To find out more about the Rev. John Newton’s remarkably bad and remarkably good life, go to the library and check out this fine book.

In recent years, as Granfield notes, people have become uncomfortable with the phrase “saved a wretch like me.” We now want to sanitize the phrase with something similar to “saved and set me free.” This is wishful thinking. The Rev. John Newton realized his sinful actions had made “a wretch like me.” The book does not gloss over his dreadful years as a slave trader, but his conversion and eventual virtuous life is simply remarkable. I hope you get a chance to read Newton’s life story and sing the beautiful song he composed.

Terrence Nollen




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