Amazing Grace Memorial in Liverpool

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“Without William Wilberforce the abolitionist campaign would not have succeeded, but without John Newton there would have been no William Wilberforce.” This is the conclusion of Jonathan Aitken, author of John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (2007).

This is no exaggeration by the former Member of Parliament and author of Nixon: A Life (1994). Since it was the wisdom of the slave-trader turned born-again Gospel minister, John Newton, that guided William Wilberforce through a crisis of conscience and religious conversion when, in 1785, the young Parliamentarian was trying to choose between a private life with the Church or a public life in politics.

If the MP’s God-centered commitment to abolishing the slave trade is ever in doubt, you need only remember what Thomas Dundas says in the film Amazing Grace (2006): “Wilberforce follows no leader but the preacher in his head.”

Yet it is Wilberforce, and not Newton, who is the household name – notwithstanding the latter composing one of the world’s best-loved hymns, “Amazing Grace”. So it is not before time that we recognize Newton’s role in the abolition of the slave trade.

The memorial to Newton’s universal anthem – commonly referred to as “the spiritual national anthem of America” – may not be as grand as Wilberforce’s memorial statue in Westminster Abbey, or as tall as the Monument in his birthplace of Kingston upon Hull, but Liverpool has become the first place on this side of the Atlantic to unveil an artwork in tribute to Newton.

The installation is at the Pier Head Ferry Terminal on Liverpool’s World Heritage waterfront, virtually on the site where Newton “ferried across the Mersey” as Surveyor of Tides 1755-1764. Indeed Liverpool featured prominently in the self-proclaimed wretch’s life of shipwrecks, slave trading, and salvation. After renouncing his past as a slave trader, Newton became an Anglican priest before joining forces with Wilberforce. So, much like his adopted city, he led in the slave trade, but also led in its abolition. Or, to put it his way, “once was lost, but now am found”.

Stephen Broadbent’s artwork is comprised of three pierced steel plates which represent the three continents, Africa, America and Europe. They are connected by a glazed panel representing the Atlantic and etched with patterns of the former slave trading routes. The words and musical notes from “Amazing Grace” flow through the artwork.

It is a story of how lyric and melody came together. Since the hymn’s famous melody was only joined to Newton’s lyric in 1835, after it was taken up by the descendants of slaves who Newton transported from Africa to America.

Although “Amazing Grace” was written in 1772, Newton only published a pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” and gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1788, at the height of his campaigning with Wilberforce. For these reasons, it could equally be said that without John Newton the abolitionist campaign would not have succeeded, but without William Wilberforce there would have been no John Newton – or not the one we pay tribute to today, in Liverpool and across the Atlantic.

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