If you want to see a Broadway show this year, you can choose between one in which Mormon missionaries learn to blaspheme and one in which a Christian teenager has a relationship with a transgender adult. Or you can watch the earnest depiction of the life of John Newton, which has made its way to Broadway as the musical Amazing Grace. As one reviewer put it, these days it is far more culturally irreverent to promote religious faith than it is to mock it.
In telling the story of the British slave trader turned hymn writer, Amazing Grace the musical does not seek to be “safe and fun for the whole family” as so many faith-based dramas do. In addition to an appealing musical score, talented cast, and artful staging, the show is laced with gritty honesty. It tells the story of a man who lived for his own pleasure, untouched by the sufferings of others. It also tells the stories of Africans whose lives have been ruined by the slave trade.
The musical’s plot line takes more than a few liberties with history. Newton’s sweetheart Mary Catlett (who would later become his wife) is portrayed as an abolitionist. This portrayal, which has no biographical basis, allows the producers to highlight the courage it took to be an abolitionist in the mid-18th century. Yet the depiction falters because it depends on historical inaccuracies that include a Charleston-style slave market in Chatham, England, as well as a confrontation between Newton’s sweetheart and the Prince of Wales.
To tell any man’s story in a two-and-a-half hour musical necessarily requires simplification. Amazing Grace removes a great deal of complexity by presenting a composite account of Newton’s conversion. We see him repent of his sins when he is almost drowned in a storm. Immediately afterward, he seeks to atone for them by purchasing the freedom of as many slaves as he can.
In reality, while Newton considered his shipboard recognition of his sinfulness to be the beginning of his conversion, he wrote in his autobiography that he was not a true believer until years later: “I was greatly deficient in many respects. . . . I acknowledged the Lord’s mercy in pardoning what was past, but I depended chiefly upon my own resolution to do better for the future.”
Furthermore, Newton did not give up the slave trade for several years. Though by time he was in his sixties he was a full-blown abolitionist, he only came to that position gradually as he matured as a Christian. Once he came to it, he fought hard against slavery, using his own experience to vivify the horrors of the slave trade.
One other addition to Newton’s story is the fictional characters who bring to life the slave experience. One of these is Newton’s manservant, and another is Catlett’s nanny. While it bothered me a little that these characters sprang from the playwright’s imagination rather than history, it did strengthen the drama to view Newton’s life from the perspective of the oppressed. The slave trade fed on the lives of real human beings and tore apart actual families. It is important to bring these stories to life even as we consider Newton’s redemption.
I was familiar with Newton’s story, but the “slave trader” part of his autobiography had always been abstract for me. Watching this musical brought home to me the fact that John Newton was an evil man. When he wrote that God “saved a wretch like me,” he could think back on hundreds of lives that he himself had destroyed. Even after the experience of being personally enslaved in Sierra Leone, he continued to profit from the slave trade after he was freed. He was no Jean Valjean who merely stole a loaf of bread. Like the woman who washed Jesus’s feet in Luke 7, John Newton loved much because he was forgiven much.
And while I’ve seen the evils of slavery depicted in movies, seeing it depicted in the flesh was different. Hearing the crack of a whip echo across a theater and seeing shame on the face of an actress several dozen feet away from me made me feel like I should jump up on stage and do something about it.
As I watched the steely resolve of the abolitionists, a very ordinary group of people, singing “We Are Determined,” my thoughts turned to the determination that those of us who oppose abortion should share. The abolitionists of the 18th century fought for a hopeless cause, but that didn’t stop them from fighting. Newton’s and other minds were changed and, little by little, some of their enemies became their friends. Their hope against hope paid off. May John Newton’s life inspire us to relentlessly pursue both lost souls and lost causes.