‘Amazing grace’ awakening

Words of revelation from the slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace

John Newton
John Newton

We've all sung the song, learned the words, seen the Barack Obama rendition. Amazing Grace is arguably the most well-known and beloved hymn of the last two centuries.

Its author, John Newton, was not just being poetic when he talked about being a wretch; he was being honest. The song is an autobiographictal account of the former slave trader's spiritual conversion – if anyone needed amazing grace it was him.

A brief bio – A boy on the sea

  • Born in London, 1725.
  • Mother died just before his seventh birthday and just 11 years old the first time his father took him out to sea.
  • Known for his rebellious streak: John lost his first job in a merchant's office because of "unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint;" drank profusely; and when he fell in love with Mary Catlett he ignored his responsibilities to spend time with his belle.
  • Forced into service by the Royal Navy in 1743. The conditions on board were almost as intolerable as being away from Mary was, and he deserted – only to be recaptured soon after and inflicted with a punishment known as "a red-checked shirt on the grating."
  • Received 25 to 30 lashes on his bare back, after which he was carried below the ship where his wounds were rubbed with vinegar, spirits, salt water or hot tar; and he was demoted to the rank of a common seaman.
  • Transferred, at his request, following this painful humiliation, to a slave ship on its way to West Africa.
  • Rescued in 1748 by a sea captain ordered by Newton's father to return him to England.

The first miracle

His rescue ship was almost John's death — on the way home it encountered a severe storm and nearly sank. John awoke in the middle of the night and, as the ship filled with water, called out to God. It was recognized as a miracle when the ship drifted to safety.

John began reading the Bible and other religious literature and by the time he got to England he had accepted the principles of evangelical Christianity. He recognized this time as his conversion and decided to renounce profanity, gambling, and drinking.

He did, however, continue to work in the slave trade for some time. "I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word until a considerable time afterwards," he said.

From slave trader to abolitionist

He continued to work in the slave trade in 1749 and 1750, when he married Mary in St Margaret's Church in Rochester.

Finally, in 1754, John Newton retired from the slave trade and became an Anglican priest. Thirty-four years later, in 1788, he published Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. "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."

Over the course of his life John turned himself around to the point where he not only had abandoned his old ways but was working actively against them.

He once said, "If it were possible for me to alter any part of God's plan, I could only spoil it." And he tried to live the rest of his life this way, following the path God had paved out for him.

He came to find a source of immense comfort and hope in God, and he said, "If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable."

Plagued by ill health and failing eyesight, John Newton died on 21 December 1807 and was buried beside his wife in St. Mary Woolnoth in London.

His comforting hymn would outlive him by hundreds of years, and doubtless many more to come.

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