Finding Grace: The Story of John Newton

/ Commentary

By Nathan Apodaca

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

Without a doubt, the hymn “Amazing Grace” is probably the most famous Christian hymn of all time, if not the most famous song in the world. It is sung tens of thousands of times per year, at weddings, funerals, and church services worldwide.

Yet many are unfamiliar with the story of how the song, written in an obscure part of the 18th century English countryside, came about, or how the song’s author, John Newton, came to leave a lasting legacy that has spanned nearly two and a half centuries.

Born August 4th, 1725, in the town of Wapping, England to a sea trading captain and his wife, John Newton’s life is a prime example of just what “Amazing Grace” truly means.

With his father constantly at sea, a young John Newton had the truth of Christianity instilled in him from an early age by his mother. Unfortunately, after his mother’s untimely passing from tuberculosis, Newton was thrown into a spiritual storm of sorts, pushed in many different directions by the pressures from both his father and his step-mother. Being the son of a sailor, Newton would inevitably find himself called into the world of seafaring when he was a teenager.  

Unfortunately, a young Newton would find himself living the life of a rebel, causing much mischief and heartache for a number of his employers as he followed his varying passions.

Chief among his passions was a young English woman whom he fell deeply in love with, Mary "Polly" Catlatt. Meeting her when he was just 16 years old, Newton was thrown head over heels, always desiring to visit with her and eventually marry Polly.

Unfortunately, Polly would have to wait. Newton's rebellious and licentious spirit would take him through a variety of "toils, troubles and snares" over the next several years of his life. During a visit with the Catlett family, Newton was captured by a British Press Gang, a group of sailors sent to roam the countryside in search of able-bodied young men to impress into the Royal Navy. This led to a several-year long series of misadventures on the seas. Newton, ever the rebellious scoundrel, brought upon himself multiple troubles, including being flogged by his ship's crew and a demotion in rank for the crime of deserting his ship while it was in port so he could see Polly (in retrospect a very lenient punishment, as at the time desertion was a crime that normally carried with it the punishment of execution).

Eventually Newton was traded by his ship's captain, and became a crew member on a merchant ship bound for the African coast, but his troubles did not end there.

Newton was soon employed by a European slave trader, Amos Clow, who was working on the African continent helping in the kidnapping of men, women, and children for the British slave trade. When Clow left the "factory," (a name for slave processing centers) Newton became ill and soon found himself in chains, this time at the hands of Clow's mistress, a sadistic African woman named Pi.

During the time in which Newton was enslaved to Pi, he was often treated far worse than other African slaves, who often took pity on Newton, bringing him scraps of food and smuggling his letters out of the facility, where they would be delivered to Polly, and more importantly, Newton's father. As an influential sea captain, John Newton Senior was able to secure his son's release and employment on the cargo ship, Greyhound.

Newton's brush with death did not end on the African coast. In fact, his life became one of constant brushes with death, with Newton realizing later God's hand had spared him on multiple occasions.

One such occasion, and perhaps the most important, took place on the Greyhound.

After departing the African coast with their new passenger and a load of material cargo, the ship made its way to British colonies in the Caribbean and North America, before returning home.

During this voyage, Newton found a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A. Kempis and began to read. A hardened atheist, proud blasphemer (one who made even fellow sailors cringe with his curses) and one who would try to tempt other Christians into committing acts of vice, Newton soon found himself beginning to question his own atheism. "What if these things are true?" Newton asked himself.

He would soon find an answer.

Not long after Newton found the book, the Greyhound was soon caught in a horrific storm, in which a sailor was washed overboard and lost to the sea. The Greyhound was badly damaged and in danger of sinking. Newton, helping the captain try to keep her afloat, found himself uttering, "If this does not work, may the Lord have mercy on us."

When he finally had time to think, he began to understand his woeful spiritual state, and asked God for forgiveness for his rebellious behavior and spiritual indifference.

The Greyhound eventually returned to England, where Newton began seeking new employment. Eventually, he found himself as captain of a ship bound for Africa for a specific cargo to deliver to the British colonies: Fellow human beings.

Newton, the new convert to Christianity, was in charge of a slave ship on the infamous Atlantic Middle Passage.

How can this be? As Newton biographer Johnathan Aitken notes in his book, during this period most of the Christian church was largely indifferent to the evils of slavery. Moral consciences had yet to be awakened to the abuses inflicted on fellow human beings.

Even during this time, Newton's changing moral values became evident, as he became far more humane to both his cargo and his crew, eventually not losing a single slave or crew member during a voyage, something unheard of during this dark time.

However, in a bit of Providential irony, Newton would become one of the voices awakening the moral conscience of his fellow countrymen.

Now fully employed, Newton married his precious Polly, whom he had been in love with for years. During his times at sea, he never longed for anything more than to be home with her.

He eventually got his wish.

While at home with Polly between voyages, he soon found himself suffering from a bizarre medical condition which revealed itself in a seizure of sorts. Doctors were perplexed, as Newton was in remarkable health. Whatever the case, he was no longer fit for sea travel.

This turned out to be another incident of Providential direction, as Newton himself discovered.

He soon found himself drawn into Christian ministry, desiring himself to become a minister in the church. Not long after, Polly became deathly ill, leading Newton to despair of losing his precious wife. During the trials and toils of this period of his life, Newton also struggled for several years to obtain his ordination, eventually becoming the minister of his own church in the town of Olney. It was there that he befriended poet and hymn writer William Cowper.

Polly eventually recovered from her illness, and became a valuable spiritual partner to her husband during the years of his ministry.

Cowper and Newton together produced a hymnal for their church. However, Cowper, who battled mental illness, soon fell into deep depression and had suicidal tendencies, with Newton ministering to him during this dark period of his life. It was during this time that the song Amazing Grace was born.

In 1772, Newton, preaching a New Year’s day sermon, penned the words to what would become probably the most famous song of all time. However, at the time he had no idea of the far-reaching impact it would have across centuries. The song would gain in popularity in the United States during the 19th century, and in the middle of the 20th century would play a role in the Civil Rights movement. In a bit of irony that can only be explained by God's sovereign grace, a hymn written by a redeemed slave ship captain would later bring hope to millions of descendants of enslaved men and women facing their own battles with discrimination, and would point millions more back to the beauty of God's redeeming grace.

Continuing in his ministry, Newton also befriended the Thornton family, and in particular, a young nephew who had come to stay with them. A sickly, frail young boy whom doctors said would probably never make it to adulthood.

His name was William Wilberforce, and the friendship he developed with Newton would alter the course of human history.

Newton would continue growing deeper in his spiritual understanding and his relationship with Christ would continue to guide him during other difficult periods in his life, such as Polly's ill health and eventual passing, and when he decided to speak up against the slave trade.

A few years after meeting Newton, Wilberforce, now on his own spiritual journey, came to Newton for advice on whether to continue with his career in the British Parliament, or leave politics altogether to become a minister. Newton encouraged Wilberforce to remain where he was and to serve God in the place where He had put Wilberforce. Wilberforce's famous diary entry, "The Lord has put before me two great objects: The abolition of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners" (“morals” in modern English) was made after one of his meetings with Newton.

Newton's influence on Wilberforce would eventually culminate in the absolute abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, and spread to the rest of Europe and eventually the United States.

However, Newton was not done. When Wilberforce began his crusade to end slavery, he gathered evidence and witnesses to testify before Parliamentary committees, headed by the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. One of these witnesses was John Newton. In his testimonies, he would give graphic descriptions of the sadistic ways in which fellow human beings were treated by slave ship captains and traders. His testimony helped awaken the long-slumbering moral conscience of the nation, and set society on the path towards recognizing the dignity of every human being.

Newton passed away in 1807, just days after the British Parliament passed a resolution to ban the slave trade from Africa.

John Newton may have departed this world over 200 years ago, but his life as an example of God's grace and mercy towards sinners bears examination, especially in light of the challenges our own generation faces.

Today, amidst all the talk about justice, and how God is a God of justice, very often we tragically leave out the reality of God's grace.

In issues like abortion, many men and women who have abortions in their past are left without knowing what God's grace, and what the resurrection of Christ can mean for them.

We need to be clear: abortion is a grave sin, but God's "Amazing Grace" means it is not the end of the story. No human being has ever done or can do enough to deserve God's grace to cover our sins. He offers it to us anyway. All we have to do is accept it. Abortion does not and cannot exempt someone from God's grace any more than participation in slavery could. All we have to do is ask His forgiveness. He is ready and willing to give it to us.

For pro-life advocates, we need to keep in mind during our conversations, arguments, debates, and outreach that we will never come into contact with a person who is less deserving of God's grace and mercy than we are. We are all messed up, and there is only one way to be fixed. Our lives should shine as examples of God's grace.

For those who receive God's grace, bought by what Jesus did on Calvary, they are given what men and women have desired for millennia: a second chance. Being born again spiritually means we get to start over, and live life as new creations. Our moral wrongs, no matter how severe or horrific they may have been, are not counted against us by God, and we are given a new life made in the likeness of Christ.

John Newton’s story is one of the greatest examples of what salvation and "Amazing Grace” mean for broken human beings. As Newton acknowledged shortly before his death,

"Although my memory is fading, I remember two things: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior."

A great Savior, indeed.

References

Aitken, Jonathan. John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Reprint Edition, Crossway Publishing, May 2013

Bull, Rev. Josiah. “But Now I See” The Life of John Newton. Reprinted, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, August 2016

The Creation of ‘Amazing Grace.’” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200149085/. Accessed 13 September 2020.

Turner, Steve. Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song. HarperCollins Publishing, 2002


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.

Finding Grace: The Story of John Newton
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