John Newton was born in London, on 24 July 1725. The first part of his life scarcely suggested that he would someday compose one of the most popular hymns ever written. Yet “Amazing Grace” has been sung or recorded by singers and musicians as diverse as Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Elvis Presley, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Aretha Franklin, Tiny Tim, Rod Stewart, Woody Guthrie, and the legendary folksinger “Doc” Watson. (A cherished memory is of singing the hymn with Watson, in a southern California living room many years ago.)
It has been rendered in blues form, and performed by jazz musicians. It has been featured at the funerals of such celebrities as Richard Nixon, Joe DiMaggio, and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and in films like Alice’s Restaurant and Star Trek II.
But “Amazing Grace” is no mere pop cultural icon. It is a testament to the potentially transformative power of religious conversion.
A Story of Conversion
The son of a merchant ship captain who plied the Mediterranean, John Newton went to sea with his father at the age of eleven. In 1744, he was pressed into service on a British navy man-of-war, the H.M.S. Harwich. When shipboard conditions proved intolerable, he tried to desert. But he was soon recaptured, which resulted in a public flogging and in his demotion from the rank of midshipman to that of common seaman.
Finally, at his own request, he was transferred to a slave ship that was bound for the coast of Sierra Leone. He became the personal servant of a slave trader, and eventually had to be rescued from the man’s brutality by a sea captain who had known his father.
Newton ultimately rose to command his own slave ship. He had long since abandoned the religious convictions of his mother, who had died while he was still a child; life on slave ships was hardly conducive to spirituality. However, returning from Africa in 1748, he encountered an especially violent and terrifying storm and was convinced that both he and his ship were doomed. Suddenly he heard himself exclaim, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”
Thus occurred what he later called his “great deliverance.” It was not merely that he, his crew, and his ship had unexpectedly survived the storm, but that he had been miraculously turned to God. Back in his cabin, he reflected on his spontaneously exclaimed prayer, and he became convinced that God had used the storm to speak to him, to save him – a blessing far beyond his merits.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
For the remainder of his life, Newton observed 10 May, the date of that horrific storm, as the anniversary of his conversion.
Newton continued in the slave trade for a while, but now he tried to ensure the humane treatment of the prisoners on his ship. By 1755, however, following a serious illness, he had given up both slaving and seafaring altogether. He had also, however, begun to educate himself, and he ultimately learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
While working as surveyor of tides at Liverpool, he became acquainted with the preacher George Whitefield, and with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Probably under their influence, he himself decided to become a minister. Overcoming serious obstacles, he succeeded, and was assigned to a church in Olney, to the north of London, where his sermons were soon so popular that the building had to be expanded.
In 1767, the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became close friends. Together, in addition to regular church services, they led weekly prayer meetings, for each of which they tried to write a new hymn. (Among these are several that are still popular among Protestants, including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.”)
“Amazing Grace” was written in Olney late in December 1772, while Newton was preparing a sermon for New Year’s Day, 1773, based on the text of 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 – a passage in which King David prays, thanking God, saying “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?” But the hymn plainly drew also upon Newton’s storm-tossed conversion experience, and upon memory of his previous life as an unbeliever, a slave trader, and a libertine. Like David, he marveled that God had brought so unworthy a man so far.
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.
In 1780, Newton left Olney for a church in London where, once again, his sermons drew large congregations. Things came full circle: Among those who regularly attended and were profoundly affected by Newton’s preaching was the future parliamentary leader William Wilberforce, who was to become a major figure in the successful campaign to abolish slavery throughout the British dominions.
Although he had lost his eyesight some time before, John Newton continued to preach until shortly before his death on 21 December 1807, secure in the conviction that the sins and turmoil of his earlier life had been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
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.
In memory of Carl P. Peterson (1913-2003). He was blind, but now can see.