Professor Buzzkill is the internet alias for Joseph Coohill, a historian of modern Britain and Ireland with a doctorate in history from Oxford. He has a website and a podcast putting historical misconceptions and myths through the proverbial buzzsaw. One of the motivations for his work is that “Many people believe what they hear without thinking critically about it, or checking to see whether it’s true.”
A couple of years ago, he did a podcast episode on John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” Since this is a subject I have studied, I decided to listen.
The myth—or urban legend—he refuted was the following:
The myth is that while being saved from the storm, Newton had the flash of inspiration that the slave trade was evil. The story is that the words to “Amazing Grace” came to him while he was being delivered from the storm. He turned his ship around, stopped slave trading, and went back to England to join the church and fight for the abolition of the slave trade.
I have never heard or seen this myth firsthand, but I have no doubt some people somewhere think it is true and have passed it along. Professor Buzzkill does a good job showing that this account is historical nonsense.
But as I listened to the podcast, several things didn’t seem quite right. So I went back to it again and looked back at some sources.
My intention here isn’t to pick on Professor Buzzkill. I know almost nothing about him or his work. But it could be worth pointing out a few errors of his own, along with some lessons we might learn from this.
In bold are the comments from the podcast, followed by notes in non-bold.
Newton was born in 1725, into a ship-making and seafaring family.
This is a minor one, but while it’s true that John Newton Sr. was a ship sailor, I’ve not seen evidence that he was also a ship maker. (I’m happy to be proven wrong on this if citations can be given. But it seems more likely that it was a mistake.)
Apparently he [John Newton Jr.] was not the best ship mate, because the crew of the Pegasus abandoned him in West Africa and he was captured and enslaved by the local Sherbro people.
Lots of things could be said here.
First, there’s no need to say “apparently”—he was a bad shipmate. He wrote a song ridiculing the captain and his ship, and then taught the song to the ship’s company. In his memoir he recounts, “I was exceedingly vile. . . . I not only sinned with a high hand myself, but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.”
Second, we don’t know he was a bad ship mate because “the crew . . . abandoned him.” A crew could not abandon a fellow ship mate. That would have been the decision of the captain. But even then, the captain did not abandon Newton. Newton wanted to stay in Guinea to work for Amos Clow, a local slave trader in Guinea, who arranged for Newton’s release.
Third, it is not really accurate to say, without context, that he was abandoned by the ship and then “captured and enslaved by the local Sherbro people.” As noted above, he was an employee of Amos Clow, whose factories and barracoons housed captured slaves before they were bartered away to slave ships or local chiefs. Soon after his work began there, Newton planned to travel with Clow on a two-week trading expedition but was unable to join him on account of an illness. While Clow was away, Newton was tortured by Clow’s African mistress, Princess PI (pronounced pee-eye), who chained, mocked, and starved him. Upon Clow’s return, Newton’s conditions improved, but then a rival slave-trader falsely accused Newton of stealing Clow’s property, with the result that Newton was severely tortured by Clow himself. Near the end of 1746, Newton was transferred to another slave-trading employer, where he worked for the remainder of his time.
Rescued by a British merchant ship in 1748, Newton sailed back for England.
Newton boarded the Greyhound in February 1747, not 1748.
“Rescued” is one way to characterize it, but Newton had to be persuaded to board the ship, which had been arranged by his father. Using the false promise of a large inheritance, Captain Swanwick convinced Newton to come aboard the ship to sail with them back to England.
He was given a parish in Olney in Lincolnshire and started his clerical life.
Olney is in the county of Buckinghamshire, not Lincolnshire, which is 100 miles to the north.
In 1767 the poet William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) moved to Olney and became a member of Newton’s church. They became friends, and for the next few years began to write hymns together.
Cowper, who suffered from severe bouts of depression, moved to Olney specifically because Newton invited him to live there. They did not begin writing hymns together until 1771.
In 1785 [Newton] began to speak out against the slave trade.
While Newton interacted privately with William Wilberforce about the slave trade at the end of 1785, did not go public with his critique of slavery in January of 1788 when he published his influential pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, a detailed and unprecedented first-hand account of the hidden horrors of kidnapping, enslavement, and degradation that were bound up with the practice of slave-trading. “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders,” he wrote in the pamphlet’s opening paragraphs.
The Second Great Revival, a religious revival movement that stressed emotion, singing, and charismatic preaching became very influential in the early 19th century.
The correct terminology here is Second Great Awakening.
I am not trying to pick on Professor Buzzkill here. I’m sure much of his podcast is valuable. And I’d actually recommend listening to this podcast episode, as it has a great little overview on the history of the “Amazing Grace” song, replete with alternate tunes performed by the choir at Bethel University!
But . . . there are too many mistakes in this one episode to think this is a go-to place for (ironically) correcting things that folks get wrong about history.
(As an aside, it’s also important to distinguish kinds of errors and the intent of the errors. Professor Buzzkill’s errors seem “innocent” and not agenda-driven. It’s something else entirely when you have ideologues using history to argue for claims like Thomas Jefferson was a Christian.)
So how do you critically evaluate information that you read online?
This is a difficult question, especially in the age of information saturation and data explosion. We can’t fact-check everything. As the amount of information increases, it seems like we need to find more authorities and filters we can trust.
Beth Allison Barr, a historian at Baylor University, wrote a helpful piece entitled “A Pastor’s Quick Guide to Reliable Historical Research.” The principles obviously apply to more than just pastors wanting to use history reliably in a sermon. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing.
She suggests asking three questions before believing or citing information from a website.
(1) Who sponsors the website and/or who are the authors?
(2) Does the article/website cite sources?
(3) Have you checked out the cited sources?
In the case of the Professor Buzzkill site, the first question would lead you to believe this is a reliable site, given his credentials. But the second two questions are relevant for this podcast episode:
Second, does the article/website cite sources? This is critical. I would strongly encourage you never to use information from an online source that does not tell you where it got the information (and in a way that you can look it up). For example, in my last blog (1647: The Year Christians Cancelled Christmas) I explained that I was drawing from an expertly researched book on the English Civil War by historian Diane Purkiss. Any reader can find her book and check my story. The exception to this would be a source written by a credentialed expert in the field (although usually experts still will provide some indication about their source material).
Third, have you checked out the cited sources? Don’t make yourself look stupid by repeating bad information. Wikipedia cites sources, and Wikipedia articles have errors (see this comparison of Wikipedia articles with peer reviewed medical research). In other words, even articles/websites that cite sources sometimes use them incorrectly, draw from disreputable places, or simply omit relevant data. Don’t stake your reputation on an unexamined claim. Follow the trail and check out the source for yourself.
In the case of Professor Buzzkill, he cites four sources for his work on Newton’s life:
- Bernard Martin, John Newton: a Biography (1950)
- John Pollock, Amazing Grace: John Newton’s Story (1981)
- Catherine Swift, John Newton (1991)
- Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: from Disgrace to Amazing Grace (2013)
Bruce Hindmarsh, who has written the standard work on Newton in his historical context [John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition: Between the Conversions of Wesley and Wilberforce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)] writes that Bernard Martin’s book “falls short of anything like a standard biography.”
And Catherine Swift’s book is a short narrative book for children!
Pollock would be more reliable, and Aitken is excellent. But given the presence of a children’s book in the list, and given that Aitken’s book corrects many of Professor Buzzkill’s narrative, one wonders if these were really used or function more like a recommended reading list.
Remember—as Professor Barr goes on to state—Google Books is your friend. This is probably the quickest (even if not fool-proof) way to check citations in the digital age. If the information you discover there is only from secondary, popular-level sources, and if it does not have a citation back to a primary source, your suspicions can rightly be raised.
Again, the point of this post is not to pick on Professor Buzzkill. For all I know, this may be the only sloppy entry in all of his episodes. But it’s a simple reminder that just because something is on the internet, and even if it is written by a historian, we must proceed with caution. Evidence is a historian’s best friend, and without it, we are right to ask some questions.