Amazing Grace … the John Newton story
John Newton crossed the seas of the world many times in his career as merchant seaman and slave trader. But none of his journeys was so great as that he made from a foul-mouthed dealer in human flesh to humble minister of God.
It’s an extraordinary story that might be forgotten today had he not left the legacy of one our best-known and best-loved hymns. Composed to provide fresh material for his congregation on a Sunday morning, Amazing Grace was even more than a spiritually uplifting anthem, it was the story of Newton’s Life.
Newton was born in Wapping on 24 July,1725. He had a promising start. His father was commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean, and his mother a devout Christian who taught John at home, hoping that one day he would enter the ministry. But his mother died when he was just seven years old and, at the age of 11, John was at sea himself. He made six voyages with his father before the elder Newton retired.
Pressganged into the Royal Navy
Then, in 1744, the hardened seaman joined the Royal Navy. It wasn’t his choice, he was press-ganged onto a man-of-war, HMS Harwich. Even his father’s knowing the admiral couldn’t get John released – England was about to go to war with France. Instead he got his son promoted, knowing that an officer would have a better time onboard, indeed would have a better chance of surviving the voyage.
But John found conditions intolerable and jumped ship at Plymouth. The unlucky Newton was quickly recaptured, publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman. The crew was banned from showing him any kindness or even talking to him. Ahead of him loomed five years’ misery … if he survived.
Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. But if he thought life would be better out of the Navy, he was wrong. He became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. Falling ill, he was ridiculed by his master’s wife. And when he complained about his treatment, his returning master chained him on deck, day and night, rain and scorching sun, with a pint of rice for his daily meal.
Amazing Grace for John Newton
Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John’s father. And Newton worked his way up to become captain of his own ship – trafficking in slaves. The early religious instruction from his mother was now a distant memory. Newton was a coarsened, foul-mouthed character by now, hardened by his trade and by the appalling treatment thrown at him by the fates. who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions.
However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance.” He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”
And then he reflected that it was the first time in years that he had called on his Maker. Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.
John Wesley and Methodism
For the rest of his life he saw 10 May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. But it was a gradual epiphany. Newton continued in the slave trade for a while after his conversion, though making the concession that the slaves under his care should be treated humanely.
In 1750 he married Mary Catlett, and by 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring forever. During his days at seas, he had begun to educate himself, teaching himself Latin. Now Newton met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Inspired, he decided to become a minister and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. One of the draws were the hymns he composed with his friend, the poet William Cowper.
And as well as composing Amazing Grace, Newton left another legacy. MP William Wilberforce, confused about his future, arranged a secret meeting with Newton, who had been a father-figure to him in his youth. Newton persuaded him to stay in politics, and years later Wilberforce would be the driving force behind the abolition of slavery.
To find out more about John Newton, read the biography by his friend Richard Cecil, The Life of Newton, reprinted by Christian Focus Publications in March 1999, with additional notes by Marylynn Rouse.