Born JULY 24, 1725
Before his death, John Newton wrote the words that appear on his tombstone. They describe him as an “infidel” and “a servant of slavers in Africa” who was “by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith.” As John’s story unfolds, it proves the power of the cross, touching and inspiring millions of lives in its wake.
“A WRETCH LIKE ME”
John was an only child. His mother died during his seventh year, ending her Christian influence in his life. His father remarried and sent John away for schooling. Three years later, John quit the school. The day he turned eleven, he began a new kind of education on board a ship with his seafaring father.
When John’s father retired, John continued the life of a seaman, drifting further and further away from his mother’s religious training. He served on a number of vessels, finally taking work on a slave ship. He admits to indulging in various vices during this phase of his life. But he was about to be humbled.John believed he could earn his fortune as an agent in the slave business. He settled on Africa’s Guinea coast, on Plantain Island. His visions of an idyllic life fell apart. He contracted malaria. While suffering all the unpleasantries of the disease (which killed many whites in the slave trade), he was severely mistreated by the African mistress of the man he worked for.
Still, John admitted, “The miseries into which I plunged myself, could only be exceeded by the dreadful wickedness of my heart and life.”
“BUT NOW I’M FOUND”
Through his father’s intervention, John boarded a ship, the Greyhound, in 1748, to return to England. Then, early one March morning, a raging storm awoke John. With a violence at least as severe as the storm the prophet Jonah awoke to, John learned the vessel was tearing apart. During the two-day ordeal, the man whose blasphemous and immoral lifestyle had led him so far from his mother’s Biblical teachings returned himself into God’s care. The date of his surrender was March 21.
The Greyhound finally limped into a harbor in Ireland in early April, one side partly exposed, food nearly gone, and only nine crewmen remaining. In contrast, John was a new man. For the rest of his life, he remembered that date as his “great turning day.” Every year thereafter he honored the day with fasting, praising God, and praying.
John’s conversion began a lifetime of Bible reading and church attendance. He practiced his faith, but he remained unconvicted in one area.
John became the captain of his own slave ship. Like other professing Christians of his day, he did not see the slave business as conflicting with Biblical teaching. He did sense a responsibility: “I will treat them with humanity while under my power and not render their confinement unnecessarily grievous.”
God delivered John from the slave trade. Following a seizure, his doctor advised that he cease his travels .
In 1750, John married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett. He found work at the Port of Liverpool, measuring waves and inspecting ships. Christian leaders heard about his testimony. They opened their pulpits to John to tell it to others, which led to other opportunities.
He met leading religious leaders of his day, including George Whitfield and John Wesley. John Newton eventually sensed a call into the ministry. In June of 1764, he became an ordained Anglican priest. The following month, John’s spiritual autobiography, An Authentic Narrative, was published. It became an instant best seller.
John’s pastoral ministry in Olney included writing hymns to accompany his sermons. William Cowper (Cooper) moved to Olney. The two men, close friends for nearly twenty years, combined their writing abilities to create the hymnal Olney Hymns, published in 1779. The hymnal contained William’s song There is a Fountain and John’s Amazing Grace.
“AND GRACE WILL LEAD ME HOME”
After Olney, John and Mary moved to London where he pastored St. Mary Woolnoth Church. There, he eventually took a stand on slavery. Strands of influence weaved them-selves into John’s life, including a young politician John had known as a boy, William Wilberforce.
John’s story inspired William. After the politician’s conversion, he visited John. The pastor gave him helpful advice. In the months ahead, William decided how to let his faith inform his policies in Parliament. The issue that rose to the top: abolishing slavery.
In 1788, John published an essay titled Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade that clearly called it “wrong.” The next year, William presented before Parliament the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. It was a long, hard fight with strong opposition from those standing to lose the most financially.
While the political battle raged, John’s life changed. His wife, Mary, died at the end of 1790. His old friend, William Cowper passed away ten years later. John preached both funerals. Mary’s death hit him like a hurricane blast, but John kept preaching and writing, refusing to retire even as his memory and eyesight failed him more and more.
To the end, God’s grace remained his theme. Prior to his death, John said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”
On March 25, 1807, England’s Bill for the Abolition of Slavery became official law. Nine months later, on December 21, 1807, the former “infidel” John Newton passed from this life, having survived many toils and snares, but God’s grace had led him home.
AN AMAZING SONG
John’s most famous hymn suffered a sluggish life in the United Kingdom, but in the past 150 years, it’s caught the wind in its sail as a cultural phenomenon in the United States. Here are some of the highlights:
`During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides received hymnals that included it. `In 1909, Edwin Excell gave the song its modern tune and added what is often the final verse in today’s hymnals. He borrowed the stanza which begins with “when we’ve been there ten thousand years,” from the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. `In the 1940s, Mahalia Jackson was known for singing Amazing Grace. `It became a folk music standard, co-opted to express social statements. `The Civil Rights Movement used the hymn as an anthem. `Folk singer Arlo Guthrie featured Amazing Grace in his 1969 peace-nik movie, Alice’s Restaurant and sang it that summer at Woodstock. `Judy Collins made a popular recording in 1971. `A bagpipe rendition by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards the following year received even more radio airplay on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. `Aretha Franklin had a well-received version at the same time. `Aretha, B. J. Thomas, and Ricky Scaggs have each received Grammy Awards for record-ings of Amazing Grace. `In 1999, USA Today included the sheet music to Amazing Grace in its list of 100 things worthy of inclusion in a 20th Century time capsule. `Since the terrorist attacks on America in 2001, Amazing Grace has become a song used at hundreds of funerals. `In the 2006 movie, Amazing Grace, which tells the story of William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign, Albert Finney portrayed John Newton. `Many other Hollywood films feature John Newton’s hymn. The same year as Alice’s Restaurant, the tune appeared in the original True Grit. Other films from the past thirty-five years include Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Star Trek II (1982), Memphis Belle (1991), Amistad (1997), Big Fish (2003), and The Secret Life of Bees (2008). `Leading Christian musicians released a 2007 album, Amazing Grace: Music Inspired by the Motion Picture. On that album, Chris Tomlin sang Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone), which combines new words with the familiar song (see youtube links below).
LET ME KNOW: How has John’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
Turner, Steve. Amazing Grace. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003.
Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Fisk, Samuel. 40 Fascinating Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1993.
Osbeck, Kenneth. 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1982.
Learn more about John Newton’s life from the following resources————-
Newton, John. Out of the Depths. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2008. (An modern revision of John’s 1764 autobiography)
Newton, John. Letters of John Newton. Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 2007.
Strom, Kay Marshall. Once Blind: The Life of John Newton. Authentic, 2008.
Aitken, Jonathan. John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007.
Amazing Grace. Directed by Michael Apted. Twentieth Century Fox, November 2007. DVD.
Amazing Grace with Bill Moyers. Directed by Elana Mannes. Mannes Productions, 1990. DVD.
Listen to three thirty-second excerpts from John’s autobiography at-http://abolition.e2bn.org/people_35.html.
Scroll down the page to 1939 for the first of over 25 renditions of Amazing Grace by singers you’ve never heard of before and a few you have-http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/grace/grace-timeline.html.
“The Story of Amazing Grace” youtube video, 3:05. Posted by YoLITuBe5 on April 29, 2007-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfoCSmw-EaE.
“Grace Like Rain – Todd Agnew” youtube video, 4:25. Posted by bondservant007 on October 22, 2006-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcGJb-mPMmg.
“Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) – Chris Tomlin – Story Behind the Song” youtube video, 9:01. Posted by fqvideo on November 4, 2011- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjMFkvkxXeQ
There’s a large of variety of singers and styles on YouTube. Find one you like and listen.——————————————————————————————————