"Editor's Bookshelf: Amazing Myths, How Strange the Sound: An interview with Steve Turner, the author of Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song" by David Neff, Christianity Today, March 31, 2003)Ed has much more at Debunking Christianity.
John Newton was a pastor and author of "Amazing Grace" and "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken."...
INTERVIEWER: What mythology did you yourself hold that you discovered was wrong when you did your research?
TURNER: I think I just knew the basic skeleton of this story. I knew Newton was a slave trader, I knew that he had been in a storm, and I knew he'd written a song. I didn't really know the sequence in which that happened. Arlo Guthrie tells the story on stage that Newton was transporting slaves and the storm hit the boat, he was converted on the spot, changed his mind about slavery, took the slaves back to Africa, released them, came back to England, and wrote the song. That would be nice. That would be the way we'd like to write the story. But the fact is that he took years and years before he came to the abolition position. And he never captained a slave ship until after he became a Christian. All his life as a slave captain was actually post-conversion.
The majority of Christians were in favor of the slave trade. The ship owner that he worked for had a pew in the church in Liverpool. It was not uncommon at all for prominent Anglicans to also be involved in the slave trade. And it made me wonder, what things are we involved in that we think are fine but in centuries to come people will think, How could they possibly have done that? [...]
Newton's tender ship captain's letters that he sent home to his beloved Mary showed complete lack of concern for the African families he was breaking up. A telling passage from one letter cites "the three greatest blessings of which human nature is capable" as "religion, liberty, and love." But referring to those he had helped to enslave, he wrote, "I believe... that they have no words among them expressive of these engaging ideas: from
whence I infer that the ideas themselves have no place in their minds."
When it came to denouncing the slave trade, Newton would not commit himself publicly until the mid-1780s—nearly 30 years after the issue was first broached in Parliament, 20 years after the Countess of Huntingdon began campaigning for equal treatment of the races, and 14 years after John Wesley wrote his Thoughts on Slavery.