Amazing Grace,The story of John Newton, author of America's favorite hymn
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson Print this Page
Free Sermon on the Mount Bible Study
A slaveship anchored off the African coast. (Bibliothèque nationale, Paris) from Bronz, et. al, The Challenge of America (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), p. 155)
I used to think America's favorite hymn, "Amazing Grace" (MIDI), was a bit overdone: "... that saved a wretch like me." Really now!
But the author was a wretch, a moral pariah. While a new believer around 1750, John Newton had commanded an English slave ship.
You know what that meant. Ships would make the first leg of their voyage from England nearly empty until they would anchor off the African coast. There tribal chiefs would deliver to the Europeans stockades full of men and women, captured in raids and wars against other tribes. Buyers would select the finest specimens, which would be bartered for weapons, ammunition, metal, liquor, trinkets, and cloth. Then the captives would be loaded aboard, packed for sailing. They were chained below decks to prevent suicides, laid side by side to save space, row after row, one after another, until the vessel was laden with as many as 600 units of human cargo.
Slaves were "packed" in ships for the voyage across the Atlantic. (The Granger Collection) in Peter Wood, The Seafarers: The Spanish Main (Time-Life Books, 1979), p. 63)
Captains sought a fast voyage across the Atlantic's infamous "middle passage," hoping to preserve as much as their cargo as possible, yet mortality sometimes ran 20% or higher. When an outbreak of smallpox or dysentery occurred, the stricken were cast overboard. Once they arrived in the New World, blacks were traded for sugar and molasses to manufacture rum, which the ships would carry to England for the final leg of their "triangle trade." Then off to Africa for yet another round. John Newton transported more than a few shiploads of the 6 million African slaves brought to the Americas in the 18th century.
At sea by the age of eleven, he was forced to enlist on a British man-of-war seven years later. Recaptured after desertion, the disgraced sailor was exchanged to the crew of a slave ship bound for Africa.
It was a book he found on board--Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ--which sowed the seeds of his conversion. When a ship nearly foundered in a storm, he gave his life to Christ. Later he was promoted to captain of a slave ship. Commanding a slave vessel seems like a strange place to find a new Christian. But at last the inhuman aspects of the business began to pall on him, and he left the sea for good.
While working as a tide surveyor he studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life preached the gospel in Olney and London. At 82, Newton said, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour." No wonder he understood so well grace--the completely undeserved mercy and favor of God.
Newton's tombstone 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 labored to destroy." But a far greater testimony outlives Newton in the most famous of the hundreds of hymns he wrote:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved 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 relieved.How precious did that grace appearThe hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,I have already come.'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,And grace will lead me home.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...” So begins one of the most beloved hymns of all times, a staple in the hymnals of many denominations, New Britain or “45 on the top” in Sacred Harp. The author of the words was John Newton, the self-proclaimed wretch who once was lost but then was found, saved by amazing grace.
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.
In 1750 he married Mary Catlett, with whom he had been in love for many years. By 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring forever. During his days as a sailor he had begun to educate himself, teaching himself Latin, among other subjects. From 1755 to 1760 Newton was surveyor of tides at Liverpool, where he came to know George Whitefield, deacon in the Church of England, evangelistic preacher, and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church. Newton became Whitefield’s enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Newton’s self-education continued, and he learned Greek and Hebrew.
He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was subsequently ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other parts of the country. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends.
Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and on his tours to other places. They held not only a regular weekly church service but also began a series of weekly prayer meetings, for which their goal was to write a new hymn for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity. The first edition, published in 1779, contained 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.
Among Newton’s contributions which are still loved and sung today are “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and ”Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” as well as “Amazing Grace.” Composed probably between 1760 and 1770 in Olney, ”Amazing Grace” was possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service. Through the years other writers have composed additional verses to the hymn which came to be known as “Amazing Grace” (it was not thus entitled in Olney Hymns), and possibly verses from other Newton hymns have been added. However, these are the six stanzas that appeared, with minor spelling variations, in both the first edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the one nearest the date of Newton’s death. It appeared under the heading Faith’s Review and Expectation, along with a reference to First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16 and 17 [see the below for this Scripture – Graham Pockett].
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.
The origin of the melody is unknown. Most hymnals attribute it to an early American folk melody. The Bill Moyers special on “Amazing Grace” speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.
Newton was not only a prolific hymn writer but also kept extensive journals and wrote many letters. Historians accredit his journals and letters for much of what is known today about the eighteenth century slave trade. In Cardiphonia, or the Utterance of the Heart, a series of devotional letters, he aligned himself with the Evangelical revival, reflecting the sentiments of his friend John Wesley and Methodism.
In 1780 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, St. Mary Woolchurch, in London. There he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21, 1807. Infidel and libertine turned minister in the Church of England, he
21 December 1807
DIED At his house in Coleman-street-buildings, aged 82, the Rev. John Newton, Rector of the United Parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth, and St. Mary Woolchurch Haw, of which parishes he had been Rector 28 years. His unblemished life, his amiable character, both as a man and as a Minister, and his able writings, are too well known to need any comment.
advert placed 23 December 1807
(written by himself,
engraved by John Bacon jnr, RA)
JOHN NEWTON, CLERK,
Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa ,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy,
Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks;
And  years in this church.
On Feb. 1, 1750, he married
Daughter of the late George Catlett,
Of Chatham .
He resigned her to the Lord who gave her,
On 15th December, 1790.
St Mary Woolnoth Register
On Monday evening the twenty-first day of this month the Revd John Newton, the Rector of these united parishes, departed this life in the eighty-third year of his age having been upwards of twenty-eight years Rector. The last time he officiated in this church was Sunday evening October 5th 1806, and the last time he was at divine worship in it was Sunday morning January 4th 1807. He was born in London July 24 1725 OS, was presented to this church by the late John Thornton Esqr of Clapham in the County of Surrey, inducted December 8th
1779 and entered on a glorious immortality about a quarter past eight in the evening of the twenty-first day of this month December, and being dead he yet speaketh. Remember them who have the rule over you, who have spoken to you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever!
His mortal remains were deposited in the chancel vault of this church on December the thirty-first, the service being read according to his own desires, by his friend the Revd Henry Foster AM, minister of St James Clerkenwell, and a funeral sermon preached at this church on Sunday morning January 3rd 1808 by the Rev Richard Cecil AM, minister of St John’s Chapel Bedford Row
Thos Batt, Parish Clerk
Josiah Pratt, Curate and Lecturer
John Piper's [Newton!] Bicentenary Blog
Funeral Sermon for Newton by Richard Cecil
And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his Lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord, when he cometh, shall find so doing. Luke 12:42,43.
Thus acted your late minister, as a good steward of the manifold grace of God… I think I may assert, without fear of contradiction from such as knew the character of your late minister, that no man ever executed his office with a more single eye, or a more disinterested [impartial] heart.
This thing was not done in a corner, or in the presence of two or three interested witnesses, but it was done in the centre of the largest city in the world.