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President Obama Leads the Nation in "Amazing Grace"

06/29/2015 03:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

President Barack Obama concluded a powerful eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina by leading congregants in the song Amazing Grace. Reverend Pinckney was one of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church murdered in a racist assault on Wednesday June 17.

The song was a fitting culmination to the ceremony on a number of levels. In Christian belief, amazing grace represents God's love for mankind, even when people are undeserving, and Jesus' sacrifice for humanity. President Obama told the assembly "As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. He's given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves."

The hymn Amazing Grace also has an important history as part of the 18th century struggle to outlaw the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was completed and published in the 1770s by British clergyman John Newton. But in the 1740s, when Newton wrote the first verse of the song, he was a mate on slave trader.

In 1748 Newton was on The Greyhound, caught in a powerful Atlantic storm. During the night the storm ripped the ship's sails and destroyed one side of the vessel. Sailors hurriedly pumped out the seawater trying to keep the boat afloat. Newton, too exhausted to pump water, was tied to the helm so he would not be swept overbroad while he battled to keep the ship from turning over. Fearing death, Newton, a sinner, prayed for salvation. In the morning, the storm abated and the sun, God's grace, broke through, saving the ship, its crew, and enslaved Africans destined for the Americas.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

God's grace brought forth the sun and saved a wretch like Newton, a slave trader. Newton had been blind to God's wishes, but now he could see. Yet ironically, despite this experience and his religious conversion, Newton continued to work on slave ships, even becoming a ship's captain, through the mid-1750s when he after another religious encounter he became a lay evangelical. As a Protestant evangelical Newton published religious tracts and contributed to hymnals.

In 1787 Newton published Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787) as part of a growing campaign to end British complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the opening passages of the book, Newton wrote "I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself in public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory. 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."

Newton described the trans-Atlantic slave trade as an " unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with slaves." He called for "the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out."

Newton and fellow abolitionists were finally successful when Great Britain suspended its involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Soon after the United States also banned the importation of enslaved Africans. However slavery in some parts of the Americas continued until the end of the 19th century and racism in the United States and other nations remains as a stain on humankind into the present.

In the eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, President Obama declared that "For too long" the United States has "been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career." Among other things, he declared removing Confederate flag, a "symbol of racial oppression," from the South Carolina capital "would simply be acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong."

Whether you are religious or not, I think all Americans should learn from the story of John Newton, share President Obama's songful prayer, and work to combat racial oppression and hatred.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.