The famous writer wrote these words for his tombstone that stands today:
BY THE RICH MERY OF OUR
Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In 1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.
Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John’s father. John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one which plied the slave trade.
Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, 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.” 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.
For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace has bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” He continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely.
Newton continued to work in the salve trade for about 7 years after his conversion experience. He began reading the Bible and stopped cussing, gambling, and drinking; but he said later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”(1) By 1755, he shifted out of the shipping business and slave trade, into tide surveying at the port in Liverpool, and began studying Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac; becoming a popular evangelical lay minister.
In 1757, he applied for the priesthood in The Church of England, and looked to The Methodists, The Independents, and The Presbyterians, for a ministerial situation. It took 7 years (June 1764) for Newton to obtain the right connections to be ordained as a priest and receive deacon’s orders. He spent 16 years at his first ‘pastorate’, then, around 1880, moved to his second one at Woolnoth, for 28 years
He was an evangelical Anglican and was friendly with Methodists and Baptists. In the 1780’s, Newton played a role in William Wilberforce’s conversion to Christ, and in 1788, wrote his apologetic pamphlet, “Thoughts Upon The Slave Trade“, in which, he chronicles the horror of the middle passage of the slaves across the sea. He apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … 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.”(2)
Newton lived to see the passage of legislation in England that abolished the slave trade there, in 1807. He died in December of 1807. He was married from 1750, until his wife’s death in 1790. His Puritan mother died when he was young, and he had a father that he believed loved him, but never said it. The father of a man who would certainly find his own way with words.
Newton had a number of near-death experiences, experienced a “cat of nine tales” whipping, and became a servant at one point. He was mentored by George Whitfield and had a wealthy sponsor to helped him.
The “Amazing Grace” in Newton’s life was not just the answered prayer event of his humbling himself and asking The Almighty to save him, when he was in a terrible storm on the high seas and his ship was going to sink. Grace was there in his life, through his mother, his father, and many other people in his life. God was there next to him, wooing him to Himself and then wooing in on.
When John Newton said, “Yes” to grace, he entered in to being a learner (disciple). And his discipleship was not linear or even noticeable in some aspects. After believing, he stopped some things, but continued in others.
His life is an example of grace. God was gracious to him. After he began to be a disciple, it to years to come to a certain place of sanctification, then years to get to another place of ministry. It also took years of waiting to wed his bride, after he decided she was the woman he wanted to marry.
If you read his life, there were many detours and “holding patterns”, where he learned in the school of life and grew in Christ. And it was, “Grace, grace, grace”. God redeemed the worst thing about him, at least from our human perspective, that he was a slave merchant; and he played an important role in the abolition of slavery in England.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
1. Newton, John (2003), Hillman, Dennis, ed., Out of the Depths, Grand Rapids: Kregel; p. 84
2. Hochschild, Adam (2005), Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan; pp. 130-132
A good, brief biography of Newton: The Amazing Grace Life of John Newton, by Chris Armstrong
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