“Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)” is the first line of one of the most recognisable Christian hymns from the 18thcentury. John Newton, an English Anglican clergyman who began his career as a sailor in the Royal Navy, wrote this hymn and a few others, which we sing today.
John Newton was born on 4th August 1725 in Wapping to John Newton the Elder, a shipmaster, and Elizabeth. Sadly, his mother died of tuberculosis in 1723 and Newton was sent to boarding school. After two years, Newton moved into his father’s new home in Aveley, Essex, where he lived with his new wife.
Newton experienced his first sea voyage at the age of eleven when he accompanied his father on his ship. John Newton the Elder intended his son to work on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, however, after enjoying a total of six voyages with his father, Newton signed on with a merchant ship sailing in the Mediterranean.
Less than a year after he had started working, Newton was forced to join the Royal Navy where he became a midshipman aboard HMS Harwich. Newton tried to desert but was caught and flogged in front of the rest of the crew then demoted to a common seaman. He struggled mentally after this humiliation and eventually transferred to a ship called Pegasus, which was bound for West Africa. Unfortunately, life on this ship was no better.
Pegasus was a slave ship that transported African slaves to North America. Newton did not get on with the crew and, in 1745, they left him with a slave dealer in West Africa. Newton was now a slave for Princess Peye of the Sherbro people who abused and mistreated him until 1748 when he was rescued by a sea captain who had been sent by Newton’s father to locate him.
On the journey back to England, the ship was caught in a severe storm. Believing he would die, Newton prayed to God, asking for forgiveness, after which the storm abated. Following this, Newton began to read the Bible and, by the time the ship reached England, had converted to evangelical Christianity. He then married his childhood sweetheart Mary Catlett and adopted his two orphaned nieces, Elizabeth Cunningham and Eliza Catlett.
Conversion to Christianity did not stop Newton’s activity within the slave trade. Between 1750 and 1754, Newton made three voyages as captain of a slave ship and only stopped when he suffered a severe stroke. In 1755, Newton worked as a tax collector, studying Greek, Hebrew and Syriac in his spare time. In 1757, Newton applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England but it was a long time before he was accepted. Finally, in 1764 he was ordained and became the curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire.
In 1779, Newton was invited to become the Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street in the City of London. He remained in that position for the remainder of his life and offered advice to many young churchgoers who were struggling with their faith. One of these people was William Wilberforce, an MP who led the movement to abolish slavery.
As an ally of Wilberforce, Newton helped to enact the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Newton published a pamphlet called Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, which described the horrific conditions on the slave ships and publically apologised for his involvement.
During Newton’s life in the Church, he wrote several hymns, some of which were published in Olney Hymns, a collaboration between Newton and fellow hymn writer William Cowper. Newton’s hymns include Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, based on Psalm 87:3 (“Glorious things are said of you, city of God.”), and How Sweet The Name of Jesus Sounds. Of course, his most famous is Faith's Review and Expectation, which is now known as Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace was written from Newton’s personal experience. He did not have a religious upbringing and his life’s path was full of twists and turns, however, he found his way to God, who forgave and redeemed him of his sins. Newton wrote the hymn to illustrate his sermon on New Year’s Day in 1773. His sermon was based on 1 Chronicles 17 in which the prophet Nathan tells David God will maintain his family line forever. Newton emphasised that God is involved in everyone’s lives even if they may not be aware. Newton described sinners as "blinded by the god of this world" until "mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired ... our hearts endeavoured to shut him out till he overcame us by the power of his grace."
The lyrics to Amazing Grace also contain references to the New Testament. “I once was lost, but now am found,” refers to the parable of the Prodigal Son and “Was blind, but now I see,” comes from the account of Jesus healing a blind man written in the Gospel of John.
As well as writing hymns, Newton penned a few books, including an autobiography and Letters to a Wife, in which he expressed his grief after his wife died in 1790. Newton also wrote a preface to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Over a decade and a half after his wife’s death, John Newton passed away at the age of 82 on 21st December 1807. On his tomb at Olney, his self-penned epitaph reads “JOHN NEWTON. Clerk. Once an infidel and libertine a servant of slaves in Africa was by the rich mercy of our LORD and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy. Near 16 years as Curate of this parish and 28 years as Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth.”
Newton has been honoured with a stained-glass window at St Peter and Paul Church in Olney and, in 1982, Newton was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Newton’s influence on William Wilberforce was immortalised in the film Amazing Grace in which Albert Finney portrayed a penitent Newton, haunted by the ghosts of 20,000 slaves.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon