Contested heritage: Reverend John Newton (1725-1807)

The public protests associated with the Black Lives Matter campaign came to a head in the UK over the weekend of 6/7 June 2020 with the toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston and its deposit in the harbour in Bristol. This prompted subsequent action in Bristol and elsewhere; last year, permission was granted for the removal of some stained-glass elements from the north transept memorial window of Edward Colston; and inscriptions on two headstones at St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean have been considered by the consistory courts, here and here.

This year, the Church of England’s Church Buildings Council and Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England published the guidance Contested Heritage in Cathedrals and Churches; this “addresses issues of contested heritage in the Church of England’s cathedral and church buildings, their settings and their historic interiors”. On 24 May 2021, the consistory court of the Diocese of Oxford handed down the judgement Re St Peter and St Paul Olney [2021] ECC Oxf 2 in which issues of “contested heritage” are considered further.

Re St Peter and St Paul Olney

The Rector and Churchwardens sought permission for the creation of an educational area in the east end of the south aisle of the church dedicated to the life and work of the Reverend John Newton (1725-1807), and to introduce into the church an informative display. John Newton, whose sermon on New Year’s Day 1773 resulted in the hymn “Amazing Grace”, is described as “a reformed slave ship captain”, and was the curate-in-charge of the church from 1764 to 1780. With his wife Mary, he was originally buried in the crypt under St Mary Woolnoth together with his wife; however, it was necessary for their remains to be removed and transferred to Olney to accommodate the construction of Bank Underground station during the extension of the London Underground Northern Line, the route of which passes under the church [4].

The church proposes to create a John Newton-themed area to the east of the south aisle, to be used as a meeting, display, and educational area for the numerous visitors to the church, and to celebrate John Newton and the hymn “Amazing Grace” [5]. Four pews, and the seat from a fifth pew, are to be removed, leaving five rows of pews between the newly created area and the south doors; they will be used at the back of the church to form ‘barriers’ around other areas [6].

The judgment notes the Church of England’s guidance on contested heritage, supra, and also the recent report from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce. The latter recognizes that “whilst history should not be hidden, the Church does not want unconditionally to celebrate or commemorate people who have contributed to or benefitted from the tragedy that was the slave trade” [7]. Summarizing the approach of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul to the subject of the slave trade in their exhibits, the Chancellor, said [emphasis in original]:

[8]. … They intend to celebrate the Christian conversion of John Newton, his life as an evangelist and hymn writer, and his inspirational relationship with William Wilberforce. There is said to be no intention to sanitise or to airbrush history; and the church will continue to highlight the evils of the slave trade and all that this involved. The church intends to celebrate both John Newton and his hymn “Amazing Grace”; but at the same time they will be sensitive to the feelings of others.

The display that has been donated to the church by the Cowper and Newton Museum is a good example of this approach: it acknowledges Newton’s role in the slave trade, mapping his life through his involvement in that inhuman trade to his work with William Wilberforce in the abolition of slavery. It bears a heading: “‘From Slave Trade To Fair Trade”; and it includes the following statement about John Newton: “His involvement in the slave trade, both as a trader in slaves and as a supporter of the movement for its abolition, remains a good example of how individuals can play a vital part in bringing about change towards a fairer and more caring world.”

The church have been working very closely with the Museum, which has been concerned to address the lack of diversity amongst the presenters of materials and the need to recognise the vital contributions made by African writers and abolitionists, working class radicals and women rather than simply focusing upon the work of white, upper and middle class males like William Wilberforce and John Newton”

The Chancellor referred to the current article on John Newton in the online dictionary of National Biography, written by D. Bruce Hindmarsh and published in May 2010 [9]. This describes Newton as a “slave trader and Church of England clergyman”:  The section on slavery “appears to paint a balanced picture of a reformed sinner”; it concludes:

“Newton has sometimes been accused of hypocrisy for holding strong religious convictions at the same time as being active in the slave trade, praying above deck while his human cargo was in abject misery below deck. He was not, however, within the orbit of evangelicals such as John Wesley, who had advanced views against slavery, until he had already left the sea. He was a typical European of his time. Later in life he had deep regrets and repented of his involvement in the traffic, supported William Wilberforce in his abolition crusade, gave evidence to the Privy Council, and wrote a tract supporting abolition, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787).” The writer later notes that when Newton was awarded the degree of DD by the University of New Jersey in 1792 “… he chose not to recognize the honour, feeling that his behaviour in Africa as a young man disqualified him from doing so”.

Noting the Historic England listing entry for the church, amended as part of the bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act, the Chancellor observed “[i]t is clear that the significance of the church building cannot be divorced from its historical association with John Newton” [10].  Likewise, “[t[he simple grey granite chest tomb of John and Mary Newton” and its inscription are “a personal, and public, acknowledgement that John Newton saw himself as a reformed sinner” [11].

Since the church is a Grade I listed building, the faculty application fell to be addressed by reference to the series of questions identified by the Court of Arches in the leading case of  Re St Alkmund, Duffield [2013] Fam 158 at para. 87 [12]. However, none of the features contributing to its listing will be affected by the present proposal, which also contains no reference to any of the church’s pews [12,13]. The Chancellor, The observed:

“[14]. Since the present proposal is one that essentially involves the historical associations of the church and its cultural, ethical and heritage values, this is not really a case that engages the Duffield questions [re the removal of the pews &c] to any significant extent. I am satisfied that, if implemented, the proposals will result in no harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest so it is only necessary for me to address directly the second of the Duffield questions. The ordinary presumption in faculty proceedings in favour of things as they stand applies; and I find that it has been convincingly rebutted”

The court granted the faculty as asked, subject to conditions [15].


Readers may have their own views on the issues presented. However, this is a Case Note on Re St Peter and St Paul Olney [2021] ECC Oxf 2, and consequently, Comments on this post are closed. 

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Contested heritage: Reverend John Newton (1725-1807)" in Law & Religion UK, 29 May 2021,


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