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Spirit of Grace Ministries
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John Newton, Author of "Amazing Grace"

John Newton

by Dennis Pollock

In the realm of Christianity, we have certain verses, people, and songs which stand out above all the others. Our favorite verse is John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Our favorite Psalm is without a doubt Psalm 23, which begins with those famous words: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” The most popular evangelist in the history of the church is surely Billy Graham and our most famous and most quoted non-Biblical writer would probably be C. S. Lewis. As for our most famous hymn, there is no argument and absolutely no room for debate. Without question the hymn most loved, most sung, and more recorded than any other is Amazing Grace.

What many don’t know about this hymn is that it is not only the most popular Christian hymn; it is the most sung and most recorded song – period. When you consider all of our earth’s history, and all the innumerable songs which have been written, sung, and recorded, there is no song that eclipses Amazing Grace. Most Christians could tell you that this hymn was written by John Newton, and that he was once the captain of a slave ship, but few know much more than that. This is a shame since the life of John Newton is truly an amazing life, filled with amazing interventions from God, in short – amazing grace.

It has been said that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, the idea being that mothers are major factors in the lives and destinies of the great and influential men (and women) who make a major impact upon our world. Surely this is also the case in the lives of the spiritual champions God has raised up through the centuries to bring blessing and transformation to both the church and the world. John Newton is a perfect case-in-point. John was born in the year 1725 into a prosperous British family, his father being a successful merchant ship captain. However, as a ship’s captain he was gone much of the time, and John’s early training and oversight was done almost entirely by his mother. John would have her a brief seven years, but in that short time she made a tremendous impact on her young son, who would eventually make a huge impact upon Britain and the entire world. She was barely twenty-one when her son was born and twenty-seven when she died of tuberculosis. She loved her little boy, who was the only child she would have. As soon as he was able to speak the English language, she took it upon herself to give him a thorough education, in reading and writing, but more important to her, in the things of God.

John’s mom was a Christian, not merely a nominal Christian as so many British in those days, but a passionate evangelical who loved Jesus. She also loved the Scriptures and was determined that her son should share in those same passions. Her precocious son had a razor-sharp mind and was soon far advanced of ordinary children of those days. By the age of three his mother began teaching him to read and within a year he could read nearly any book you placed before him.

Believing in the importance of memorization, John’s momma soon had him memorizing many Bible verses and passages, entire chapters of the Bible, hymns, catechisms, and poems. He had little interest in playing outdoors with the other children, preferring his mother’s company and attention above every other activity. His mother was the near-perfect spiritual mentor and teacher, and her bright son was a near-perfect student. Observing the happy, nurturing, spiritual, and tender relationship between a godly mother and her devoted and brilliant son, one might predict that this young man would surely go on to do great things in the service of Christ. And indeed, Newton did just that. But in-between his mother’s love and lessons, and John coming into a place of usefulness in Jesus’ service, there was a terrible and miserable period of rebellion and a truly wretched life that took John about as far as one can go into the depths of depravity, sin, and spiritual darkness.

Early Trauma

John was not quite seven when his mother succumbed to tuberculosis, a common and deadly disease of those days. It rocked his world and changed everything. His father could not drop his career and just watch over John, so at his mother’s death the young boy was placed in the care of others. His father soon married again, but things didn’t improve much. John’s new stepmother soon bore children and made no attempt to disguise her preference to her own children over John. His dad, who had never been particularly attentive, seemed even less attentive to him now. Within a couple of years John was sent to boarding school where he was harshly treated, and his naturally tender spirit was crushed daily.

It didn’t take long for John to harden in such an atmosphere, and all the spiritual training of his mother seemed to dissolve. He developed a temper, became foul-mouthed and rough, and lived, played, and fought like most other boys his age. There was one difference, however -  a strange impulse that would overtake John from time to time throughout his pre-Christian days. At certain points in his young life something would shake him to the core and he would remember the God of his mother. He would then make a sincere attempt to change and be a good boy. It might last a month or several months, but it was never permanent. And when he gave up his attempts to be spiritual, he would revert to his former ways, and usually with interest. He would become a bit wilder, a bit more profane, and a bit more rebellious than ever. This seemed to happen at least six or seven times from his boyhood up through his early twenties. John could never seem to totally escape the wonderful sense of God he had experienced with his mother, but his flesh was too powerful and his heart far too hard for a mere wish to be better to accomplish the transformation he truly needed.

By the age of eleven John withdrew from school and was allowed to serve as a cabin boy on one of his father’s voyages.  He easily took to the sea and his bright mind enabled him to quickly learn his duties. His father apparently had no problems with John following in his footsteps as a man of the sea and allowed his son to work for him onboard his ships for several more voyages over the next few years. As John matured he learned the ways of the sea, and also the ungodly, profane, crude, blaspheming ways of the average sailors of those days. As he reached his late teens his father arranged a job for him as a sort of plantation overseer in Jamaica. It paid well and was considered a high-status position. But something happened to change all that and turn his life in a different direction.

Falling in Love

What happened was that John went for a brief visit to meet some former close friends of his mother. He intended to stay a couple of days and be on his way. Perhaps he thought they could tell him a few stories about his mother which his close-mouthed father had never revealed. But while he was there he met the youngest daughter of the family, a thirteen-year-old girl, and was instantly smitten. John was around nineteen years of age, so to fall as deeply in love as he did with this thirteen-year-old girl was unusual to say the least. John knew he could never tell her, her family, or his father what he was feeling. Not only was she too young for any talk of courtship, but by the standards of the day John was not at this point any kind of marriage material, at least to any family of means. He had no money and no established job. Even if both he and Polly were in their thirties the marriage would have been denied by the parents, at least until he could get and hold a good job and save up some money. So he kept his mouth shut. But what he did do was to stay much longer than he had intended. Even though he could have no relationship with little Polly, or even dare tell her that he liked her, he found rapturous delight in just being in her presence. A week passed, and when John finally forced himself to leave, the ship that was to carry him to his new position in Jamaica had sailed.

Newton didn’t mind. He was so enamored with his new love he couldn’t bear the thought of working and living thousands of miles from her. He did eventually take a position with a ship which would be back within a year in order to make some money, but he wasn’t about to commit himself to any job or career which would force him to go multiple years without seeing his great love.

Polly’s parents were not stupid, and it eventually became clear by John’s continual visits that he had a romantic interest in their daughter. The mother liked John, who of course was always on his best behavior when visiting the family. But she made it clear that they would not even consider him as a possible suitor to their daughter until he could prove himself well established and successful in a proper career. Being a lowly seaman did not qualify!

Drafted

On one of his walks from Polly’s house John Newton met a group of men who would alter the course of his life. They were sailors with governmental authority to “impress” young men into the British navy. This was a sort of government sanctioned draft, but instead of receiving a draft notice in the mailbox, these men would scour the towns and woods looking for fit young men to force into service. The unfortunate young men were shackled, taken to a temporary holding tank, and eventually put aboard a British navy ship. There was no process of appeal and no amount of protest made any difference. If you were captured this way, and deemed fit to serve, you were in the navy.

In time Newton found himself aboard a British ship headed out to sea. Having had plenty of previous experience on ships, he should have been a great “catch” for the navy. But he proved to be a miserable conscript. The reason was his attitude. Although John could pour on the charm toward Polly and her parents, to nearly everyone else he was a thoroughly dislikeable young man. He was arrogant, he did not like to take orders, and his quick wit and sarcasm made him a pariah to the ship’s officers.

At first Newton assumed he would serve a couple of years and be released, but when he discovered the ship was scheduled for a long-term service to the Caribbean islands, and that he might not see England for five years, it was too much for him. He was sent on shore with a few sailors on leave. His sea experience and his father’s request had made it possible for him to be a junior officer, and when sent on shore it was his job to keep an eye on the sailors and make sure they did not desert. But it turned out that Newton himself became the deserter. He immediately started out on foot to go and see his beloved Polly.

He didn’t get far. He ran into a group of British soldiers who eyed him suspiciously and soon ascertained that he was a deserting sailor. He was taken back to his ship where he was publicly flogged in front of the whole crew, demoted to the lowest rank, and shunned by nearly everyone from that point on. The punishment was excruciatingly painful, and it took some time for him to heal and resume his duties. When he could get around again his heart was filled with hate. He began thinking of ways to murder the ship’s captain, but also considered the real possibility of throwing himself in the sea and ending his life. As he described it later, it was his love for Polly that kept him from doing either. Despite the seemingly long odds of ever marrying his great love, there still resided within him a flicker of hope that somehow, some way he might be able to find his way back to England and have a happy ever after life in marital bliss.

His attitude did not change, however. If anything, he became surlier, angrier, more thoroughly dislikeable than ever. His heart was filled with hate for nearly everybody on ship, just as much as it was filled with love for Polly. To put it in today’s terms, he was a mess, spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally. In fact, he was so much of a mess, and his attitude so repugnant that when the captain of a slave ship asked the navy ship’s captain if he wanted to trade any of his sailors for an equal number of men from the private ship (a frequent occurrence), Newton was granted permission to leave the navy and join the private ship, which was carrying a load of slaves.

Here Newton did not fare much better, except that he managed to avoid getting beaten. Although the captain of this ship knew his father and seemed to like John initially, Newton’s arrogant, defiant, rebellious attitude soon alienated this captain as well. It seemed that whatever ship he was on, he soon turned the captain and all the officers against him. Perhaps the best word to describe John Newton’s personality and attitude in those days would be abrasive. The little boy who used to sit at his mother’s knees and memorize poetry, hymns, and Bible passages was now a foul-mouthed, lazy, blaspheming, rebellious, hateful, cantankerous, obnoxious young man. Even among sailors notorious for their profanity, his blasphemy and curses were shocking and unattractive. Anyone who came to know Newton well at that time would have predicted a short, miserable, wretched, and useless life for him. He truly seemed past hope.

A New Boss

While on this new slave ship John came to know a passenger named Amos Clow who was headed for West Africa. He was a slave trader who bought African slaves from the local chiefs and then sold them to British slave ship captains who constantly sailed up and down the coast of Africa looking for fresh merchandise. Clow boasted of the enormous amounts of money which could be made in the slave trafficking business, and soon convinced Newton to come and work for him. Clow apparently offered the ship’s captain a bribe, and John was soon on solid ground, living in West Africa in the area known as the Ivory Coast.

It didn’t take long for things to go south. John’s problems were mostly as a result of Clow’s African wife developing an intense and almost immediate dislike for him. In his writings Newton seemed to be at a loss to explain this dislike, but considering that nearly every officer he had served under and many of the men he served with on ship had also disliked him this isn’t too surprising. At that point in his life, Newton’s arrogance, profanity, and selfishness would have made him distasteful to most people. Mr. Congeniality he was not.

At first everything seemed OK, but when John fell quite sick, and Clow had to travel and be away for a while, Clow’s wife did everything she could to make Newton’s life miserable. At first she provided minimal care for him in his illness, but when he was slow to recover she gave up all pretense of nursing him. Instead, she tormented him, deprived him of food, and mocked him. When he could barely walk, she ordered him to get up and walk around the compound while she instructed the servants to throw limes at him. A couple of times they threw stones as well as limes. About the only food he was given were her leftovers, and some days nothing at all. John was forced to dig up roots and eat them dirty and uncooked, which gave him diarrhea and terrible stomach aches. His miseries and troubles onboard British ships were dwarfed by the horrific existence he now led.

When her husband returned things got back to normal, although Clow refused to believe his wife had abused Newton. But Newton’s situation was only going to get worse. After recovering from his illness, one of Clow’s fellow slave-traders somehow convinced him that Newton had been stealing from him. Having been lied to by his wife about Newton, Clow now had a reason to believe that his slave-trading apprentice had been stealing from him. The charge was not true. John Newton had a myriad of faults and bad habits, but stealing was the one vice of which he was blameless.

From Employee to Slave

There were no police departments or courts in the West African coast in those days. The Africans lived in various tribes ruled by local kings. The white men were a law unto themselves. Clow was outraged by the charge of theft, and immediately began his own program of abuse and torment toward his former apprentice. Newton was transformed from an employee to a slave. Often, he was locked in a room or put in chains. He was given a pint of rice per day as his food ration. He had no salary and the idea of him being an apprentice to Clow was now forgotten. He became so emaciated, dirty, and unkempt that he would hide himself when visitors came around, ashamed of the way he looked. He was sometimes ordered about by the other slaves, causing him in better days to refer to himself as “once a servant of slaves.” But Newton was gaining something he could not appreciate at the time, but which would mark the beginning of better things. The once proud, independent, angry young man was being broken and shattered. This was far from a conversion, but it opened the door of his heart slightly to the work of the Holy Spirit in the days ahead when he would be truly converted and transformed by Christ.

After nearly a year of this misery, relief finally came. Another slave trader came to live not far from where Newton’s master was, and seeing the young Englishman living like a slave, either felt pity for him, or simply decided to put the young man to more useful service. He offered to take Newton off Clow’s hands. At first Newton’s master felt reluctant to give up his slave, but eventually yielded to the other man’s frequent requests and allowed Newton the freedom to change “jobs” – perhaps masters would be a better word.

Relief

Newton was beyond thrilled, knowing there was no way his situation could be any worse. In fact, it was a thousand times better. His new boss somehow developed a respect for the emaciated young man, and provided him with food, decent clothing, and greater responsibilities. It was more a boss/employee relationship than a master/slave relationship as before. John was so relieved to be freed from his slavery that he took his new responsibilities seriously and proved a valuable employee. His new boss’s business was the same as Clow’s had been – to buy slaves and hold them in a large enclosure as prisoners until a slave ship would come along and purchase them. The man was quite successful and wealthy as a result of his many slave “factories” as they were known. John Newton became adept at handling the slaves, negotiating with African chiefs to get the best possible prices for them, and determining which ones would bring the most profit. From barely surviving he was now living in plenty and his boss came to trust him so much he placed Newton in charge of all his domestic arrangements and even the cash that constantly flowed into their “business.”

Overnight his life was transformed from misery and lack to abundance and success. Newton began to enjoy his African lifestyle, and in his later writings he described his attitude with a phrase often applied to white men who totally adapted to an African lifestyle: he had “grown black.” Biographer Jonathan Aitken writes:

Two of the local vices in which Newton indulged were sexual promiscuity and witchcraft. Yielding to the first temptation was perhaps a predictable consequence of his release from several months in chains – he was a hot-blooded young man who had already shown his unbridled lust for African women when forcing himself on female slaves. Dabbling in witchcraft was more surprising, given his Christian upbringing. But in his own words, Newton had caught a spirit of infatuation with some of the charms, necromancies, amulets, and divinations of African tribal customs.

It seems strange that despite his still intense feelings for Polly (the young lady he had fallen for back in England), he had no conflicts in helping himself to the African ladies. Probably one reason for this is that at this point Newton 1) saw no real possibility of ever getting back to England, and 2) if he ever did manage to make it back, he assumed he would never have the slightest chance of winning her parents’ approval or hers. And so, he gave himself to a lifestyle of enjoying whatever pleasures he could, and this meant frequent relations with the African young ladies, free or slave, willing or unwilling.

Strangely, as he prospered and indulged in a lifestyle of pleasure he lost all desire to return to England. He saw before him the very real prospects of becoming rich and living in plenty for many years to come, perhaps all his days. But something he had done while in the chains of his previous employer had set certain wheels in motion that would bring an end to his African experience. While living as a slave he had smuggled a couple of letters to visitors, letters addressed to his father, telling of his miserable situation and begging him to send someone to rescue him. He had no way of knowing whether his father received those letters, but in fact he had, and immediately began talking to a ship’s captain he knew, who would be sailing down the west African coast on a slave trading venture. Newton’s father urged the captain to inquire about his son when he reached the general area where he had indicated he was being held.

As big as Africa was, it seemed like an impossible task of finding a needle in a haystack, but it really wasn’t quite that bad. For one thing, the whites who were involved in the slave business always stayed near the coast where they sold their slaves to the slave ship captains. Secondly there weren’t all that many whites involved with this and they formed a sort of a fraternity in which they knew each other pretty well, at least within certain regions.

Needle in the Haystack is Found

Amazingly as this captain sailed close to where Newton was living, one of John’s co-workers happened to see the ship and set a signal fire, which was a common sign that someone had slaves or goods to sell. The ship’s captain saw the fire, drew close to shore and put out the anchor. The slaver approached the ship in a canoe and met with the captain. As they discussed slaves for sale, the captain asked if the man had ever heard of John Newton. He was astonished to discover that Newton worked with this man and lived about a mile from the shore. The captain went ashore and followed the man directly to the house of young John Newton.

Here is where it gets a little strange. Upon being told that the captain would allow him free passage on his ship back to England, John Newton wasn’t at all sure he wanted to leave. Had he arrived a few months previously when John was sick and a virtual slave, he would have jumped at the chance, but things had changed. He was living high these days, probably much higher than he would ever be able to live in England. Newton told the captain he didn’t think he wanted to return with him. The captain, eager to do John’s father a favor, decided to sweeten the offer. He lied and told the young man that one of his relatives had died and had left him a huge fortune. All he had to do was return to England and claim it.

This put things in a different light. Being rich in Africa might be better than being poor in England, but being rich in England was surely superior to being rich in Africa. But the thing that settled things in Newton’s mind was the thought that with all his newly inherited wealth, he might stand a chance at gaining the approval of Polly and her parents, and be able the marry the woman he had dreamed of so often. He gave his assent and within a couple of hours he had left Africa behind and was aboard ship making his way, though in an indirect fashion, back to England.

Things had certainly turned around for John, but he had not lost his abrasiveness, nor did he think to give God any credit for any of his astonishing “good luck.” As the ship made her way up the African coast, stopping many places to purchase slaves, he gave himself to cursing and swearing in a manner that disgusted even the captain, who was surely accustomed to foul language among his crew. After a while this man who had done all he could, including lying, to persuade John to come with him back to England, began to despise his young guest. Once again Newton alienated a ship’s captain and became a nuisance to all. But despite his vile language and attitudes, he found time to read a well known Christian book he found in the ship’s library, titled Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. It seemed as though no matter how wretched his life and how foul his language, he never could completely cast off the faith he had once learned from his godly mother.

Conversion

At first Newton read it as he would a novel, merely to while away the time. Since he had no duties, he had all kinds of time on his hands, and there was little to do for entertainment. But as he read further he had a strange thought surface in his mind: “What if these things are true?” It shook him to the core, for if the New Testament and the gospel accounts of Jesus were true, he was surely in a very, very bad position, headed for hell and fully deserving it.

At one point in the voyage they experienced a violent storm which lasted over a week. The waves were so fierce that the ship began to break up in places, and one particularly violent wave battered a large hole in the bow. Water poured into the ship and the cry was heard that the ship was sinking. It did not in fact sink, but it was about as close to sinking as is possible without actually doing so. They were forced to pump water constantly, while more ocean water poured into the cracks and holes as quickly as they could pump it out. The fight went on so long that it seemed almost a certainty that the ship would go down. At one point Newton talked with the captain and they considered what more they might do to shore up the weakened vessel. Finally, Newton declared, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us!”

John Newton shocked himself. While he had often spoken the name of the Lord as a curse word, he had not spoken it reverently in many years. And suddenly, mysteriously and amazingly he had said, without a trace of mockery, “The Lord have mercy on us.” Later as he served at the wheel of the ship as helmsman, he thought about what he had said, and wondered if the Lord could ever have mercy on such a one as he, one who had spent the last years of his life cursing, blaspheming, and mocking God, Christ, and the Christian religion. Surely there could never be mercy for him. But then again, wasn’t that what mercy was – God’s blessings upon those who did not deserve it? Being within an inch of death caused the young man to lose all his arrogance, anger, and boastfulness, and to give serious thought to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And for the first time in years John Newton began to pray – not for spiritual salvation but that his life might be spared.

The ship did not go down, and eventually limped its way to the Irish coast. Newton wrote, “About this time I began to know that there is a God who hears and answers prayer.” It is difficult to judge precisely when he experienced the new birth, but it can be said that by this point he was a believer. He looked for churches to attend, he read the Bible, and he fully believed the gospel of Christ. And while back in England he lived as a Christian. But as his only skills were related to ships, when he had the opportunity to become a first mate of a ship (second officer under the captain) he gladly took it.

Slave Ship First Mate

It was, as the ship that had brought him from Africa, a slave ship. And this presents a great conundrum relating to the life of John Newton. Most Christians today are under the impression that the author of amazing grace was a slave ship captain, and then was transformed by Christ and forsook the slave trade in horror, causing him to write, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” The truth is more problematic. The majority of Newton’s involvement with the slave trade was done after he believed on Christ, not before. In his first voyage as a slave ship’s first mate, he plunged into all the business of chaining and transporting African slaves in filthy, cramped quarters so horrendous that a fourth of them would die before the voyage was over. Jonathan Aitken writes:

As a mate of the Brownslow, Newton was at the forefront of bartering worthless trinkets in return for able-bodied men, putting the slaves in irons, dragging them on board the ship, and keeping them captive in horrific conditions below decks. There is no evidence to suggest that Newton’s faltering journey of faith made any difference to the treatment he inflicted on the slaves… Tearing husbands away from their wives and children, shackling these screaming men in heavy fetters, and chaining them in horrific, overcrowded squalor…

This hardly seems like the picture of a new, on-fire believer in Jesus Christ. And in fact, during this first voyage after his “great turning point” as he called it, he backslid terribly and became almost as bad as he was before, minus the cursing. Aitken writes:

Without being totally explicit on the licentious side of his excesses, it is clear from his later accounts of this period in his life that Newton indulged himself in the sexual abuse of native women on board ship, for he admitted that he had “followed a course of evil, which a few months before I should not have supposed myself any longer capable… I had little desire and no power to recover myself.”

During this trip the ship would anchor off various areas of the African coast, and Newton and a group of sailors would take a small boat up one of the rivers, traveling many miles inland to meet with tribal chiefs who would sell them slaves. These unfortunate men and women would be shackled, stuffed into the boat, and taken back to the ship. It was a dangerous business, and the male Africans would attempt to escape or overpower their captives if and when an opportunity arose. It is unbelievable to read Newton’s complaints against these desperate men, calling them cruel and treacherous. It never seemed to occur to him that these words applied to he and his crew far more than they did to the Africans.

The slaves were sold in America and in the West Indies. By the time the ship began to make its way back to England, Newton had resumed his prayer and reading of Scripture and felt better about himself as a true Christian. Back home, a wealthy friend who owned slave ships offered to make him the captain of one of his ships. This was a great financial boon to the young man, for now he had both the status and the income to ask his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. Polly agreed, and her parents welcomed the newly crowned sea captain as part of the family.

Captain

Over the next several years John Newton, who was growing more and more serious about his Christian faith, captained three separate slave ships. The pattern was fixed. He would first go to Africa and trade iron bars and trinkets for slaves that the African chiefs gladly provided. Many of these slaves were captured in inter-tribal wars, while some had been found guilty of a crime. But others were simply kidnapped as a means of making the chiefs wealthy. Newton would have these men and women branded, stripped naked, and placed in chains in the belly of the ship. It was a terrible existence, with stifling heat, constant chains, sickness, diarrhea, and a terrible stench that was omni-present, even on the deck where the sailors quartered. Newton was more humane than most slave ship captains, but from today’s perspective they were treated abysmally.

Meanwhile, Newton, spending more and more time reading the Bible, reading classic Christian books, and praying, was developing a relationship with God that he found exceedingly pleasant. He described times when he would be on the deck talking with the Lord and feeling the sweet presence of God’s Spirit filling him. As he prayed and gave thanks to God, the slaves below were going through the most horrible experience of their lives at his hands, suffering terribly. While Newton prayed and worshiped, they wept and moaned, and sometimes died.

This is such an enormous paradox that it almost defies understanding. What was wrong with this man? Was John Newton the worst hypocrite who ever lived? Was he a Christian at all? By this point he had stopped having sex with the African ladies, and was faithful to his new wife, but this faith seemed to have had little effect upon his conscience, as he made his living on the sorrows and abuse of men and women created in the image of God.

Reasons for Blindness

Two things must be said, not to defend Newton, because there really is no defense, but at least to explain him. First and foremost, at this time in history the entire Christian world was totally numb and mute concerning the evils of slavery. It wasn’t just Newton who had no problem with it. Nobody in England or Europe, from pastors to evangelists to bishops to laymen saw anything wrong with slavery. After all was not slavery all through the Bible? Many Christians saw the Africans as somehow less than fully human. Some suggested that they had no soul. In their minds, God had put blacks on the earth to serve the white race. Some argued that the Africans had it so bad in Africa that they were doing them a great favor by transporting them as slaves to farms and plantations where their white masters would see to it that they ate regularly and were properly clothed. Somehow it never occurred to them to ask the Africans if this was their wish!

A second reason for Newton’s blindness was that he was still a new believer. And in his early days his spiritual growth was stymied due to his lack of Christian fellowship and Christian mentors. As the captain of ships which were on the ocean nearly a year before their return, he was on his own. He read and he prayed but he did not have that powerful blessing we call “Christian fellowship” to help him in his spiritual walk. And having come from such a rough life it took some time before he began to gain a true comprehension of the evil of his actions.

Some might wonder, “How could God ever bless him in such a state? How could he have these rapturous fillings with the Spirit on board a slave ship?” The answer to this question is found when we look at our own lives. When I first came to Jesus I was not delivered from every bad habit immediately. I smoked marijuana for several months after my conversion. I made plenty of mistakes. But my heart had been changed and the direction of my life was changing. It took some time, but it was happening. And even during those earliest days I had wonderful times of fellowship with the Lord. God did not wait for me to become completely faultless, mature, and perfect before granting me His gracious movings of the Spirit on my heart. (And I am glad he doesn’t do it this way, because if He did, I would still be looking for my first experience with Him.)

Intervention

Finally, after three journeys as a slave ship captain, God intervened and put an end to Newton’s monstrous occupation. Newton was preparing for a fourth journey when he fell to the ground unconscious. It was probably either an epileptic seizure or a stroke. Whatever it was, it ended his career as a slave trader. The owner of the ship refused to allow Newton to go to sea and he had to seek another profession. He ended up becoming a sort of customs inspector of ships, a coveted government office which was eagerly sought by many, and which paid him very well.

But even though he enjoyed his job and appreciated the comfortable income, Newton was restless. By now he had begun to attend church and came to know many different minsters of the gospel. He loved to hear good preaching and would often travel many miles to hear a sermon by a skilled expositor of God’s word. But no preacher impressed him as much as the famous evangelist, George Whitefield. Whitfield was a born orator, who preached with great enthusiasm and without any notes, something almost never done by the proper Church of England ministers. Whitefield was emotional and had the ability to have his audiences laughing one moment and crying the next. Newton invited Whitefield to come to his city, Liverpool, and preach there. Whitefield agreed, and Newton was able to spend time with the great evangelist. As busy as Whitefield was, the fact that he would give Newton as much of his time as he did indicates that he must have seen something special in the former slave ship captain, something which would eventually become manifest to all of England.

Gone were the days of Newton’s spiritual ups and downs, times of enthusiasm and times of backsliding. As he spent time with several effective ministers and was mentored by them, he became a solid Christian, and grew eager to become a minister of the gospel. He had no seminary degree, but at that time, one could be ordained by convincing a Church of England bishop that he was worthy to minister. This John Newton endeavored to do. But he had a problem.

In those days most of the Church of England bishops and ministers were what we might call “nominal” Christians. They simply did not take their Christianity very seriously and were decidedly suspicious of those who did. The other, much smaller group of ministers were the “evangelicals.” These were men who loved the Bible, preached Jesus Christ, and made serious efforts to win souls. Since most of the bishops were of the nominal sort, and Newton was clearly a raging evangelical, they were hesitant to ordain this zealous young man. They placed him in the category of “enthusiasts,” a name which they associated with spiritual fanaticism. In truth, the enthusiasts were simply those who embraced Biblical, New Testament Christianity.

Pastoral Ministry

It ended up taking Newton six years to convince a bishop to ordain him. Even then, this was only due to the fact that a very wealthy local man pressured the bishop to do it. In any case Newton was ordained and became the pastor of a small country church in the town of Olney. By this point John had developed a spiritual maturity and a solid understanding of the Scriptures. He was also filled with energy and ambition and was eager to see the little church prosper. And prosper it did. Newton became a skilled preacher and developed the ability to hold his listeners’ attention. He also grew into a devoted pastor and shepherd of his people, and constantly visited them in their homes. The church began to grow, until at last they had to expand the building in order to accommodate the large crowds that attended. Newton was also an innovator and developed new and unique programs which fed and nourished his congregation. He started a special service for children long before the idea of Sunday School or children’s ministry were ever conceived.

Amazing Grace

One of his innovations was to write a hymn each week, especially tailored to the sermon he would preach. Newton wrote the lyrics and had one of his church members match it to a popular tune and teach it to the church. In the final week of 1772 he was working on a sermon built around’s David’s question to the Lord: “Who am I, that You have brought me this far?” He intended to use David’s question along with his own life to proclaim the goodness and graciousness of God who through Christ takes us to places and blesses us with goodness which we do not deserve. He wanted to write a hymn that would express this amazing grace which God poured out upon the human race through Christ. And so he sat at his desk and began:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

The song lyrics were not especially eloquent, nor were they complex. But the message was both powerful and timeless. As he wrote, Pastor John Newton was probably thinking far more of his own life than that of King David. Throughout all his life he recalled and wondered at the amazing manner in which God had reached down to lift him up out of that terrible place of sickness and slavery in Africa and make him a respected and successful minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To his credit John Newton never forgot the pit from which he had been lifted.

Newton wrote several other verses and the hymn was presented to the congregation. It was not an immediate hit. It did not “go viral” or end up on some top ten hit list. It was simply learned and sung by his little country church congregation, and that was it. The next week a new hymn was introduced to illustrate that sermon. But eventually a hymn book was compiled which included songs by Newton and his friend, William Cowper. The song book was quite successful, although the Amazing Grace song was not considered special.

It was not the hymn Amazing Grace which caused John Newton to become perhaps the most famous and respected British minister of his day. It was rather a little book he wrote, at the request of a friend. The book had the rather lengthy title of: An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton. Newton’s testimony of salvation and deliverance was so dramatic and riveting that the small book became an immediate best seller. It transformed its author from a country squire into a national celebrity. Even the citizens of Olney would sometimes stare at him as he passed by, hardly able to believe that this ordinary, local pastor had been through such an amazing early life.

Newton followed up on this literary success with several other books and became one of the top selling Christian authors of his day. Meanwhile many churches were using the “Olney Hymnbook” and singing Amazing Grace along with all the other hymns. Most people in those days did not consider Amazing Grace to be the greatest song in the hymnal. In fact, Newton did not live long enough to see this hymn really take off. One of the things that propelled it to fame was when an American hymn collector and publisher, some years after Newton’s death, matched the lyrics with a particular tune, which is the tune we all know and love today. Somehow the marriage of Newton’s powerful lyrics and the new melody’s beautiful and haunting sound became like combining gasoline with fire and set off a spiritual explosion. At that point the song began to capture America’s and eventually the world’s attention, and it became what it is today, the Christian national anthem.

London Pastor

After a long and successful ministry as a small-town pastor, John accepted a position as a pastor in one of the most prominent churches in England, St. Mary Woolnoth. This church was located squarely in the financial district of London and was one of the most prestigious churches in the nation. The fact that Newton could be accepted as its minister indicates the tremendous respect in which he now held. From a small-town ministry John was now in the big city. Here he continued to write books and hymns, preach solid Biblical sermons, and lovingly watch over and visit his congregation. The church responded with immediate growth. Aitken writes:

Within weeks… more and more people were coming from all over London to hear him preach, so much that regular members of the congregation began to voice complaints that their personal pews were being occupied by strangers… A gallery was built to cater for the extra numbers.

Throughout his pastoral ministry Newton evidenced a great gift in making friends and getting along with people. This man who, in his youth, had been so thoroughly dislikeable, rebellious, and angry had grown into a loving, compassionate and friendly man who was liked by everybody. Well, perhaps not quite everybody – some of the non-evangelical pastors who couldn’t stand to see anyone take the gospel seriously didn’t much like or trust him. But those without such bias almost universally loved and appreciated this godly and personable man. Truly the grace that had come to him in his youth had done an amazing work in his life and made him a monument to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

In time he came to recognize the horrendous evil of slavery and the slave trade of which he had once been such a part. Newton woke up to the monstrosity of slavery about the same time as the young member of Parliament, William Wilberforce did. Newton had known the Wilberforce family since William was a child. After William received Christ, he went to talk with Newton about his thoughts of resigning from Parliament and becoming a minister. Newton probably surprised him when he told him to stay in Parliament and be a representative of Jesus Christ there. Wilberforce did as Newton suggested and became the leading voice for the abolishment of the British slave trade. Newton joined him in this cause and became the pre-eminent minister of the gospel to speak out against slavery. The two men, even though separated by nearly thirty-five years, became great friends, and Newton was a tremendous source of encouragement to Wilberforce as he fought the twenty-year battle to kill the slave trade. At a time when many ministers were still defending the practice, John Newton was blasting it. And of course, with his experience as a former slave trader, and his knowledge of the word of God, he knew whereof he spoke.

Fighting Slavery

Newton wrote a pamphlet entitled: Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. He spared no words in condemning himself (for his past involvement) and Britain’s current slave trade, labeling this merchandising of men and women created in God’s image a stain upon the national character. He stated that he wrote on the subject in part to turn people’s hearts to abolish the slave trade but also to publicly confess the terrible things he had once done as a slave trader. Many years later, Wilberforce’s sons wrote that whenever Wilberforce and Newton were together, the latter could hardly go thirty minutes without making some reference to his grief and regret over his youthful involvement in the slave trade.

Newton’s was a voice that the British could not ignore. From his early experiences, he knew the business forwards and backwards. He knew the barbarities, the tortures, and the miseries brought upon innocent Africans in the name of commerce. As Britain’s most prominent pastor and Christian statesman, he had the respect of nearly everybody, and as a former slave ship captain no one dared to protest when he spoke of the horrible cruelties and atrocities involved. Parliament invited him to testify before a special committee, and his words were devastating. He provided powerful ammunition for his friend, William Wilberforce, to use in his eloquent Parliamentary appeals to bring this monstrous practice to an end. Eventually the tide turned and shortly before Newton’s death he heard the good news that the slave trade had received its death sentence by Parliament.

An Amazing Life

The life story of John Newton is a patchwork of the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a child learning Bible verses from his mother, he seems entirely loveable. As a rebellious young man on the sea, he is totally dislikeable. As a new believer, worshiping God while transporting slaves in chains, he is puzzling and troubling. But as a mature Christian, pastor, writer, and crusader against slavery he is admirable. When we put his life together, from first to last, we must surely say that God’s grace was powerfully displayed in this man.

Newton was also a wonderful, loving husband to his beloved wife, Polly. When they married John was a baby Christian and Polly was one of those nominal “Sunday morning” Christians. But as they aged and as John grew into one of England’s most prominent and fruitful ministers, Polly grew in her faith as well. She was never the Bible scholar her husband was, nor could she match him in intellect. But despite their differences they had a love which excelled most couples. John’s great delight in his wife was so intense that he sometimes worried he was an idolater where she was concerned. Sometimes his friends would wonder what “he saw in her.” She was not pretty, not smart, and did not have a dazzling personality. But God’s amazing grace in John gave him an amazing love for his wife.

Polly was a sickly woman and her life was a mixture of seasons where she felt so poorly she could hardly do a thing and other times when she felt whole and strong. The two did not have children of their own, although they adopted two girls. After forty years of marriage Polly developed breast cancer which eventually took her life. The doctors suggested she take Laudanum, which was the pain pill of that day. In reality it was a strong dosage of opium. Polly refused to take it and spent the next six months in great pain. After that, mysteriously the pain disappeared, and she felt relief. However, the disease was still there, doing its deadly work, and soon afterward she died. Strangely, Newton, who had loved her so deeply throughout her life, was at peace with her death. He prayed and gave thanks to the Lord for giving her to him for the years they had together. So strong were the Lord’s comforts and peace in his soul that by the next day he was preaching again.

In his old age John Newton became hard of hearing and evidenced signs of dementia. His memory became quite poor, causing him to make the famous declaration: “Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior." His friends tried to convince him to retire, but he pressed on, probably preaching longer than he should have, determined to die in the harness. Eventually he did stop preaching and left the ministry to another generation.

As we consider the amazing life of John Newton and the amazing grace that transformed his life we must once again give attention to his mother. This woman lived a very brief time on this earth. She never made it into her thirties. She was not famous, and in the eyes of her community she was not in any way special. She was no evangelist or minister and as far as we know she never led a soul to Christ. But her love for Jesus and her love for her little boy caused her to devote the final four years of her short life to instructing her son in the things of Jesus. She bathed John Newton in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the word of God. And long after she was dead, and Newton was living a reprobate, ungodly, immoral, and wretched life, he could never quite get away from those special times. It took a while, but eventually the seeds she planted in the heart of her little boy bore very good fruit indeed.

By the end of his life, John Newton had served the Savior well. Multitudes found Jesus Christ through his preaching, his testimony, his books, and his hymns. When Amazing Grace is sung today, some have changed the words to say: “that save a one (instead of wretch) like me,” or “that saved a soul like me.” But Newton knew better. He knew that he was a wretch before coming to Christ, and he knew fully that only the grace of God had transformed his life. And this is true for every one of us. We may not have a background nearly so brutal as Newton’s but before Christ we were all in a state of selfishness and sinfulness. Newton knew from where he had come and was grateful and humbled by it all of his days. He never forgot.

Neither should we.

 

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Missions Outreach


A major part of Spirit of Grace Ministries is our ministry in the great continent of Africa. There is a tremendous harvest going on in the world these days, and we are privileged to be a part of it. Above is a brief music video featuring video clips and pics from our recent mission in Mateka, Kenya.

Audio Devo: "Why is there suffering?"

People have debated this question for millennia. And we cannot speak concerning specific individual questions of suffering, but the Bible clearly speaks as to why suffering has always been a part of the human experience.