The Story of Amazing Grace

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 appear

the hour I first believed.

The Lord has promised good to me,

his word my hope secures;

he will my shield and portion be,

as long as life endures.

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

'tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

and grace will lead me home.

When we've been there ten thousand years,

bright shining as the sun,

we've no less days to sing God's praise

than when we'd first begun.

There is a popular myth today, that John Newton wrote these lyrics very shortly after he was saved. It follows that he was aboard his ship one night, wistfully looking out to sea and was so moved by his recent salvation experience that, purely out of his emotions, wrote "Amazing Grace". What does the historical record show? Did he write this from his feelings... or was this a testimony written by a man who studied and knew the word of God, an experienced saint and minister to the saints. A man who knew the transforming power of God's grace... which opened his eyes and caused him to see himself as God saw him and as God truly sees every man; the grace to persevere throughout the troubles of his own life; the grace that gave him a real hope and expectation in the forgiveness of God, in spite of himself; And would result in eternally resting and existing with God. But mainly the grace to count himself and his own life as nothing and Christ, and service to Him, as everything. This is the story of John Newton and his amazing testimony...

"Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul."

Psalm 66:16


"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." ...Proverbs 22:6

Born July 24,1725, he was an only child. His mother was a pious and experienced christian, part of a church under the oversight of a Dr. Jennings, calling themselves "Dissenters", because of their break from the main stream church. Although in poor health, she devoted herself almost entirely to John's education and spiritual training. She taught him to read before the age of three and by only four, he could read any common book. She taught him portions of Scripture, catechisms, hymns, and poems which he eagerly learned. Later he realized how the things he was taught as a child restrained him from going even deeper into sin then he did. Although he had little recollection of her as an adult, when he did come to faith, he found great benefit in remembering the things she taught him. He did remember her praying for him with tears, and it was her hope that the Lord would give him a heart for the ministry. She died July 11,1732, just before John's 7th birthday.

After his mother's death...

At the time of her death his father was a captain on a merchant ship at sea in the Mediterranean. He came home from the sea the following year and soon remarried. John was treated well but the instruction he was given by his mother was never taken up again in his new home. There, he was permitted to play with others whom he described as "careless profane children" and soon began to adopt their ways. His father sent him to a boarding school in Essex where an extremely strict schoolmaster nearly broke his desire for learning and books. After two years a new teacher came to the school who understood John's abilities and before the age of ten, he learned Latin well enough to read Virgil and Tully. At the age of ten, though, he was taken out of school.

His start as a sailor:

On the day of his eleventh birthday, he went to sea with his father. John had enormous respect for him; he watched over John's morals, but ignored the things of his spirit. He was a strict and detached man so John didn't enjoy the closeness that he'd had with his mother, in fact he described himself as "being in awe and always being in fear before him." There were several voyages, with long intervals in between, from that time till 1742.

The effects of poor religion...

During that time he had very little concern for remembering the things his mother taught him and was easily influenced for the worse. Although throughout his young life, on occasion, the thought of dying along with the question of facing God and answering to Him, would haunt him. For brief periods of time he would even appear religious. He had gone through three or four transient and partial reformations by the time he was sixteen, but these instances were times of conviction, not conversion, "I saw the necessity of religion as a means of escaping Hell but I loved sin, and was unwilling to forsake it." Before the age of twelve he was thrown from a horse and landed a few inches from a spiked branch which would have killed him if he'd landed on it. He subsequently broke off his profane life style and appeared to be quite altered. But soon, when the conviction of his conscience wore off, he was back to his old practices. Once, he and some friends were allowed to go on board a man-of-war, but he arrived at their predetermined meeting minutes too late and they left without him in a small boat which was to ferry them to the ship. It capsized on the way and his friends drowned. Again, he was greatly affected by this, but as before the impact of that experience wore off too. At fifteen he was sent to Spain to apprentice in a trade but was too unsettled and unrestrained to stay with it. The shop owner gladly turned him back over to his father after eighteen months. He wrote that during this time he was often disturbed with convictions. He'd always been fond of reading so when a religious book, Benet's Christian Oratory, came his way he adopted the way of life the book recommended. He began to pray, read Scripture and keep a diary. "I was presently religious in my own eyes. But alas! this seeming goodness had no solid foundation, but passed away like a morning cloud or the early dew. I was soon weary, gradually gave it up, and became worse than before. Instead of prayer, I learned to curse and blaspheme, and was exceedingly wicked when not under my parents' view." During one of these periods, which he described as his "last reform", he would spend most of the day in reading the Scriptures, meditation, and prayer. He fasted often, even abstaining from all animal food for three months. He would barely answer when spoken to, fearing he might speak an idle word. He would mourn for his former ways with tears, and renounced and kept himself from society to avoid temptation. This lasted, remarkably, for two years. Of this time he said," It was poor religion. It left me, in many respects, under the power of sin. It tended to make me gloomy, stupid, unsociable and useless." While docked in Denmark he purchased another book; it was Lord Shaftsbury's Characteristics. It seems it was a religious-philosophy book stating generally that there was indeed a supreme being, but it was all right to believe in any way a man sees fit, without the confines of any strict religion. John was captivated by it, reading and rereading it over and over until he had memorized parts of it. This new found "religion" freed him from all obligation from the God of the Bible and convinced him that all he had learned from the Scriptures, the catechisms and the hymns were nothing more then myth and folklore. It was just the spark he inwardly desired to ignite his unregenerate heart. He said, "Thus, with fine words and fair speeches, my simple heart was beguiled....No immediate effect followed but it operated like a slow poison, and prepared the way for all that came after."
In 1742 his father had procured a position for John with a close friend of his in Jamaica. There, he hoped his restless son would make his fortune and find the career that would suit him. He was to stay there four to five years. First though, he sent him to Kent on some business. This errand was to take only a few days, afterwhich he was to come right back, to depart on his journey to Jamaica. While he was in Kent, he visited an old and close family friend of his mother's, having unexpectedly received an invitation by her. While on this visit he met her daughter, Mary Catlett. She was only fourteen but he immediately fell in love with her and made up his mind that it was impossible for him to be away from her for that length of time. The family invited him to stay with them for a while and he foolishly accepted ( purposefully disobeying and sabotaging his father's plans for him ). His plan was to stall for as long as he could there, while the ship to Jamaica left without him. The stay lasted three weeks instead of three days. On his return he offered no explanation to his father for his disobedience. As punishment, his father sent him as a common sailor to Venice and he returned in a year. He again went to Kent and again overstayed, missing another ship with which his father had obtained an officer's post for him. His father was enraged this time and nearly disowned him. This happened at a dangerous time when war between England and France looked imminent, John impetuously decided he had to see Mary again and while on the way there, (again disobeying the warnings of his father) he was stopped by an armed press gang and unwillingly put into service on the man-of-war, the Harwich. His father tried, but couldn't influence his release and the English navy insisted that they needed experienced sailors. However, after his father conceded that this was the right place for John, he did manage, by his influence, to convince the captain to give him a position as a midshipman.

"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" ...Genesis 6:5

He generated to the company of the worst men and became close with one who impressed on him with many arguments and intelligent reasonings, that, in spite of his belief in the book Characteristics he hadn't understood it properly, nor had he broken off completely with his conscience or his former convictions. He learned from this man all too eagerly. While in his service there, having already lost the respect of his captain, by disappearing for longer then he'd been given permission, he was given a charge to make certain that no one would dessert. Instead, he fled himself. His plan was to meet with his father, in hopes to obtain a better position on one of his ships. However, he was caught and brought back to the Harwich. After two days in a guardhouse, he was brought aboard the ship, chained in irons, publicly stripped, whipped, then demoted to the level of a common seaman. There was no comfort or sympathy to be found among his new piers because of his former attitude toward them as a midshipman. He said, "I was now brought down to a level with the lowest, and exposed to the insults of all." The captain, who was known as an especially fair man, went out of his way to show his displeasure with him. His old friends tried but could not protect him from the abuse of the other seamen. All the while he knew the remainder of the voyage was to last five long years. It was as if he'd been handed a prison sentence. In the time to follow his thoughts ranged between murder of the captain and suicide. He later wrote in his memoirs, "The Lord had now to all appearances given me up to judicial hardness; I was capable of anything. I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor, so far as I remember, the least sensibility of conscience. I was possessed of so strong a spirit of delusion that I believed my own lie and was firmly persuaded that after death I should cease to be." The only thing which sustained him was the hope that someday he would again see Mary. "As in the outward concerns of life the weakest means are often applied by divine providence to produce great effects beyond their common influence..."

"If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold." ...Genesis 4:23

By providence, a sudden opportunity opened up to him and he was hastily traded from the Harwich to a merchant ship bound for Guinea, West Africa. The Commander of his new vessel knew John's father and treated him with kindness. Having appeared to his mates on the Harwich as serious and staid (after all, some of those men knew that John had spoken of a profession in religion), he now was among strangers. Believing he had no reason to disguise his true inner self, he became even worse then before. In fact while leaving the Harwich he thought, "that I now may be as abandoned as I pleased, without any control." (He later compared the state he was in at that time to Peter 2:14.) There he "sinned with a high hand." He made it his earnest business to tempt and seduce others at every opportunity. He made up mocking songs of the captain and his vessel and his sharp sarcastic wit easily annoyed and alienated others from himself, causing them to withdraw the friendship and protection they had first offered. After about six months the captain died and knowing that he was in ill favor with the first mate, he concluded that he would be traded to the first man-of-war they came across. On board, along with the crew, however, was a passenger who happened to be the partial owner of the ship he was on. John had managed to make friends with him by amusing him with his antics and sharp intelligence. The man was involved with the slave trade and John persuaded him to hire him on as a servant and apprentice. The first mate gladly agreed to let him go. He left with the man the day after the captain's death. At this time he was penniless, having signed on to the ship from the Harwich in such a hurry, he hadn't negotiated provision for the payment of his wages. All he had was a note (which he never was able to collect on). He landed with his new master on the Island of Benanoes with only the clothes on his back.

"Be not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee." ...Psalm 32:9

About this period in his life, he later reflected, "...as the Lord's hour of grace was not yet come, I was to have still deeper experience of the dreadful state of the heart of man when left to itself. I have seen frequent cause since to admire the mercy of the Lord in banishing me to those distant parts, and almost excluding me from human society, at a time when I was big with mischief, and, like one infected with a pestilence, was capable of spreading a taint wherever I went." As soon as they got to his masters new island home, they began to put the plantation's complex in order. His master was married to an African Princess who had great influence and authority in the area that they lived. She disliked John immediately and became jealous of her husbands affections toward him. It is said that he looked to John as his son and, even though he hadn't even reached the age of twenty, had already made him his partner. Both he and John were scheduled to set out on a long trip when John became seriously ill. He had no idea of what was to come as he was left behind, under the care of his Master's wife. She took somewhat care of him at first but when he didn't soon recover and instead grew worse, she ordered him to be taken from the small house which they had built for him and had him placed in the warehouse to lie in his delirious sickness on a board for his bed and a wooden log as his pillow. He was entirely neglected, given no food and left to beg for water. She fully expected him to die from his illness but his fever actually began to subside. During times when she was in the "highest good humor" she would have a plate sent to him with some food...a few meager scraps left over from her own plate. "So greatly was my pride humbled, I received this with thanks and eagerness, as the most needy beggar does an alms." So as to make his misery worse, she once made him walk in his sickness to the house and stand still while watching her eat. When she finished, she handed him her plate with only a few remains from her meal. He would gladly have eaten them but, in his weakness, he dropped the plate. She laughed and mocked him scornfully. Day after day went by and still there was no sign of his master's return. All the time his wife would come to occasionally visit John, not to pity him but to mock him and incite the other slaves to mimic him while forcing him to walk, though he could barely stand because of his illness. They sometimes pelted him with limes and if someone happened to throw stones, they weren't disciplined. ( Though, he wrote, that the same slaves who were encouraged to do him harm in her sight would pity him in her absence. Even giving to him secretly from their own rations of food.) At night he would sneak into the field of the plantation, fearing he would be caught as a thief, to pull up and eat roots, edible when cooked, but like a potato, unfit to eat raw. It is said that news traveled around the area and many came to see the spectacle of the black woman with the white slave. They threw food to him like a caged zoo animal, yet this was the very thing which sustained him and gave him back his strength. Finally his master did return, although he did not believe John's account of his abuse. And since the charges were made in the hearing of his wife, he didn't fare any better from that point on. At last he did leave with his master on a trip, doing well at first, but while on the journey another trader falsly accused him of stealing. He wrote, "The only remains of a good education I could boast of what is commonly called honesty. As far as he entrusted me, I had been always faithful. Though, my great distress might, in some measure, have excused it, I never once thought of defrauding him in the smallest matter. However, the charge was believed and I was condemned without evidence." He was treated very harshly from then on. If his master left the boat, he was locked up on deck with a pint of rice as his days allowance. There was no shelter for protection from the harsh elements. If they hunted fowl, John was only allowed to have some of the entrails to use as bait for fishing. He survived on "hastily broiled," unseasoned fish which he was allowed to catch. He was exposed sometimes for as much as forty hours at a time in teaming rain and gale force winds, when his master was on shore. He wrote of experiencing violent pains in the incessant cold, wet, and hunger which he endured on that voyage, and that it "...quite broke my constitution and my spirits. The latter were soon restored; but the effects of the former still remain with me as a needful memento of the service and wages of sin." On their return to the plantation his treatment was still more of the same. His haughty heart was brought low, not with humble repentance, but sunk into the "loss of all resolution and reflection." Although he lost the fierceness that he once had, it was only because of the loss of the opportunity for it. He was at this point so destitute that if a boat came to visit the island he would hide for shame of his condition. One thing, oddly enough, that he managed to keep was a volume of Barrow's Euclid; a study in mathematics. He would go to a remote corner of the island and work out mathematical diagrams in the sand. He said, "Thus I often beguiled my sorrows..."

"I am forgotten like a dead man out of mind: I am like a broken vessel" ...Psalm 31:12

This period of his life lasted about a year, but during that time he managed to get a few letters off to his father and Mary, describing his condition and treatment, and of course asking for assistance. His father, in the meantime, had appealed to a friend of his, who gave subsequent orders for John's rescue to a captain about to embark for Gambia. Before he realized this rescue, another slave trader living close by obtained permission from John's master to take him for himself as his servant. This new master treated John quite well, not as a servant, but as a companion and even left him in charge of his goods. He owned several factories and John was appointed a management position, along with another servant, in one of them. Business did well and the new master was pleased. They lived a carefree life there..."I began to be wretch enough to think myself happy." He was being lulled into total blindness by the ease of this life which included being intimately associated with the local inhabitants, their way of life and their idolic religious practices. He hadn't given up his dreams of England and Mary, but it looked to him that it was unlikely that those dreams would ever be realized. He was settling for this easy compromise. He said, "But as soon as I had fixed my connections and plans with these views, the Lord providentially interposed to break them in pieces, and to save me from ruin in spite of myself." The captain who was ordered to rescue him had reached his destination, however when he found that John was a very long distance from his port, he decided it would be wisest not to pursue after him. In February of 1747, John and his fellow servant were sent on some business and while walking on the beach, spotted a sailing vessel passing by. They hailed the vessel using a signal of smoke in hopes of procurring some trade, and when it came to anchor, his friend rowed to the ship in a canoe. As soon as he got to the ship he was asked if he knew the whereabouts of a man named John Newton. The captain personally came ashore but John, whose life was now quite comfortable, was indifferent to his news. The captain then made up a story that he had seen a large amount of letters sent to John, including news of a wealthy inheritance which was waiting for him on his return to England. He reasoned to himself that with this new wealth he could be married successfully to Mary, and that, and not the concern of both his family and friends, was cause enough for him to return with the captain.

"The heart also of the rash shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly." ...Isaiah 32:4

"So blind and stupid was I at this time, I made no reflection, I sought no direction in what had happened. Like a wave of the sea driven with the wind, and tossed, I was governed by present appearances, and looked no further. But He who is eyes to the blind, was leading me in a way that I knew not." While on this voyage he lived in the captain's quarters, ate at his table, was treated as a companion, and no work was expected of him. Since there was no work to keep him busy, his idle thoughts turned even uglier. Not happy with just common swearing, he made up new ones daily. They were so vile that he was often scolded openly by the captain ( Who, by one report, was a professing Christian. John had made it his business to sabotage his faith ). After confiding his adventures, the captain would often, and quite seriously tell John that he believed he had a Jonah on board. On this trip there were numerous mishaps revolving around and instigated by John; including him nearly leaping overboard in a drunken stooper (and being rescued only a moment before he plunged into a strong current, too far from the ship to be rescued, with his friends too drunk themselves to come after him...John, incredibly, could not swim, as it was not required of seamen, then). Once leading a group of his mates in the wrong direction, deep into an animal infested jungle and swamp by the black of night, with no provisions, compass, or weapons. (Only after well into the night the moon rose and by it, they were able to navigate themselves back to their ship.) There were many other life threatening occurrences including bouts with serious illness, and yet his conscience was hardened to the point that he never gave eternity even the smallest thought, "Neither judgments nor mercies made the least impression on me." They sailed for England in January of 1748 on a trip of some seven thousand miles. Upon reaching Newfoundland they stopped to fish for cod; the only motive for this was to give themselves a break from their long voyage. They thought they had plenty of provisions and didn't actually need the fish they'd caught. They left March 1st, in a ship badly in need of repair after a long stay in a tropical climate. It was in no condition for any great storms in the cold northern sea. On March 9th he began rereading Thomas a Kempis The Imitation of Christ. He acquired it from the captain's quarters where it is said there were a number of religious books. He'd read it before on this trip, but was indifferent to it and amused by it. This time a curious thing happened; He thought, "What if these things should be true?" For the first time in quite awhile his conscience witnessed against him, although he consciously decided to not let it bother him.
"And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or the left."

...Numbers 22:26

He said he went to bed that night with the casual indifference he always had but soon found out, "It was the Lord's time." He awoke suddenly to the force of an extremely violent storm which broke on top of them. The ship was in chaos and he heard someone shout that they were sinking. On the way up the ladder, as his compartment was filling with water, he met the captain coming down who told him to get a knife and bring it up. When he returned to get it, someone else had gone up in his place. That person was instantly washed overboard. The ship was filling quickly and it looked utterly hopeless. In the space of a few minutes the entire ship was a wreck. He said it was astonishing that anyone survived. They manned pumps against the incoming sea, but to little avail. The water was gaining. Some of them were sent to bail water in another part of the ship. Doing everything they could do, the ship was full and ready to go down. Because their cargo was extremely light, a large quantity of beeswax and wood (both being lighter then water) they didn't. In an hour, day began to break and the wind subsided. They used their own clothes and bedding to repair the leaks and nailed old boards over them. It was very cold and difficult to be without these, especially for men who had recently left the tropics. That evening he remembered saying ("almost without meaning") "If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us!" Instantly struck by what he had just uttered, he wondered, "What mercy can there be for me?"

On March 21st John was asked to the helm to steer the ship. The ship now had a gaping hole in it's side and all around them, as a steady reminder of it's readiness to swallow them up, was the continuous swelling and sinking of the sea. They were pumping constantly to keep the ship afloat when on that evening he heard news that they achieved purging the ship from the water they had taken in. In his mind he was considering many scriptures including, Proverbs1:24-31, Hebrews 6:4-6, 2 Peter 2:20. They seemed to fit him to a tee. He was wondering now if it was possible for the Lord to forgive him. He was considering his own ways and the seasons of his own life; from the times of devout but false piety to times of being an arrogant, unrestrained blasphemer. He began to fear God and what seemed to him was going to be his inevitable doom. When he heard the news about the water being completely pumped out, He thought that God had decided to act in their favor and he began to pray. "My prayer was like the cry of ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear." At that point he began to think of Jesus whom he had made it his business so often to persecute. He considered the story of the life and crucifixion of the Lord and turned these things over in his mind. He wanted to know more and to be sure that it was fact, and not himself wishing it to be so. Upon reading Luke11:13 and John 7:17 he reasoned that though he was still unsure of the validity of Scripture, if it was true, if this really was from God, then he must ask and study it in this light, then God would show him. On every side he was "surrounded with black unfathomable despair" but in the gospel he "saw at least a peradventure of hope." For the rest of the journey they survived on scanty rations, having lost their live stock, most of their provisions and water. And now they were a much greater distance from shore and farther off course to the north then they'd thought. Over the next five days the wind was with them but they were eventually caught by gale winds and driven even farther north. They soon found themselves out of commercial shipping lanes, without the probability of being rescued by another vessel. To be so far north at that time of year, even for a healthy ship was dangerous; they were losing hope. Because of the constant labor at the pumps with little food (half a salted cod...the same they'd caught on March 1st...to be divided between twelve men, daily) they were wasted; one man died. As day passed after day they knew that soon if they didn't sink, they would starve, there was even talk of resorting to cannibalism. Added to this was a particular circumstance for John, the captain, under the enormous stress of the situation, constantly derided him for causing the whole calamity. If only they would throw John overboard then everything would be restored to order ( his own conscience confirmed this belief ). Finally, when all hope was lost throughout the entire ship and every man was in a state of despair, the wind came around to their advantage, keeping the badly damaged portion of the vessel from dropping below the waterline; it brought them within sight of the island Tory. They anchored the next day off Lough Swilly, Ireland on April 8th, four weeks from the day of the great storm. They pulled into port just as the very last of their food was boiling in the pot and within just a couple of hours of dropping anchor, the wind became violent again. He later marveled how it was him, the most unlikely of all his fellows, who God chose, throughout their common ordeal, to open his eyes and see the demonstration of His providential, sustaining, and delivering hand on every event which happens in both nature and to man. "How many times He has appeared for me since this great deliverance! Yet alas! how distrustful and ungrateful is my heart unto this hour!" In the days leading to their landfall he read parts of the New Testament and among other verses was especially struck by the prodigal son of Luke 15. "The goodness of the father in receiving, nay, in running to meet such a son, as an illustration of the Lord's goodness to returning sinners, gained upon me." He began to pray and because of their surrounding calamity learned to cry to the Lord, understanding that only He could relieve his plight. He saw their situation as an example of his own destitution, "Sometimes I thought I could be content to die even for want of food if I might but die a believer." He came to understand the truth of the Gospel, how God declared not only His mercy but His justice in the pardon of sins only in the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ. By the time they dropped anchor, he embraced the Bible as truth.

"For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:" ...Isaiah 28:1

Only days after landing in Ireland from their near perilous voyage, he and some others went shooting. His shotgun accidentally went off so close to his face, it burned part of his hat. "The divine providence which is sufficient to deliver us in our utmost extremity is equally necessary in the most peaceful situation."

He was able to contact his father by letter. The ship hadn't been heard from for eighteen months and had been given up as lost. His father was about to embark for Canada, having received an appointment as governor of York Fort in Hudson's Bay, where three years later he died. Though John received a few letters from him, he never saw him again and deeply regretted never having asked him for forgiveness for all the concern he'd caused in his life. However, before he left, he visited Mary's family and gave his consent to their marriage.

Over the next six years John's spiritual growth was gradual, "I cannot doubt that this change, so far as it prevailed, was wrought by the Spirit and power of God, yet I was greatly deficient in many respects. In some degree, I sensed my more enormous sins, but I was little aware of the innate evils of my heart. I had no apprehension of the spirituality and extent of the law of God. The hidden life of a Christian, that of communion with God by Jesus Christ, and dependence on Him for hourly supplies of wisdom, strength, and comfort, was a mystery which I had as yet no knowledge."

Having no christian friends, John would buy religious books. Without experience or discernment, however, some of them were bad choices. Walking in his own strength, he was acknowledging the Lord's forgiveness of his sins of the past, but relying on his own resolution to do better in the future. The Lord guided him a little at a time by the best of all teachers: the application of His word to his heart accompanied with painful experience. He ended up keeping the same kind of company as before, only now he couldn't, by the rebuke of conscience, mock sin or holy things. "I consider this as the beginning of my return to God, or rather of His return to me, but I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word till a considerable time afterward." Upon his return to England, he was offered a position as captain on another vessel. He declined, deciding he needed more experience in learning to obey and instead went as first mate. Before he left he visited Mary. He later proposed to her in writing and she accepted and agreed to wait for his return. He was still in the slave trade and, about this new voyage, said, "Soon after my departure from Liverpool I began to grow slack in waiting upon the Lord. I grew vain and trifling in my conversation. By the time I arrived at Guinea, I seemed to have forgotten all the Lord's mercies. Profaneness excepted, I was almost as bad as before....Sin first deceives, then it hardens. I was now fast bound in chains; I had little desire, and no power at all to free myself. I would at times reflect how it was with me, but if I attempted to struggle, it was vain. I was just like Sampson, when he said, "I will go forth, and shake myself, as at other times"; but the Lord was departed...By the remembrance of this interval, the Lord has often reminded me what a poor creature I am in myself, incapable of standing a single hour without continual supplies of strength and grace from the fountainhead." He took suddenly ill with the same violent fever, in the same place as he had had it before: At the plantation of his former tormenters and masters, the African Princess and her husband though, this time, they treated him respectfully and took care of him. One night while still very ill, he crept to a secluded part of the island to pray, "I made no more resolves but cast myself before the Lord to do with me as He should please." Within two days he regained his health and was back on board his ship. He believed at this time he was delivered from the power and dominion of sin, although, like all true saints, "as to the effects and conflicts of sin dwelling in me, I still groan, being burdened." The remainder of that trip was full of more close calls and highly dangerous events of all kinds including many deaths, some of them murders, to a number of his fellow sailors. John was scheduled to go in a small boat on business, which was his usual charge, but at the last minute he was replaced at the captain's orders. The second mate who replaced him, drowned when the boat sank. The captain admitted he had no reason to replace him except that the thought had suddenly come to his mind.

They sailed from that place to Antiqua, then to Charlsestown, South Carolina. At this time he was spiritually immature and supposed that everyone who went to church was a true believer, and one church was the same as another. While there, he heard the preaching of a "dissenting minister" named Smith, though much later, he realized what he had heard was very sound, "The best words that men can speak are ineffectual till explained and applied by the Spirit of God." Something was happening in him now, though he still was not in the company of believers, he would go off by himself into the woods or a field to pray and meditate, "My relish for worldly diversions was much weakened, and I was more a spectator then a sharer in their pleasures, but I did not as yet see the necessity of separation."..."Not understanding the force of that precept, "Abstain from all appearance of evil," I very often ventured upon the brink of temptation.Yet the Lord was gracious to my weakness, and did not suffer the enemy to prevail against me. I was gradually led to see the folly of one thing after another, and when I saw it the Lord strengthened me to give it up. But it was some years before I was delivered from occasional compliance in many things which at this time I do not allow myself."

Marriage and separation...

At the finish of the voyage he returned to Kent. He and Mary were married on Feb.1, 1750. He later saw God's mercy in the long separations, the trials, and the waiting. If they'd been married only a couple of years earlier, before he came to faith, they would have been mutually unhappy, "But alas! I soon began to feel that my heart was still hard, and ungrateful to God in my life. This crowning mercy, which raised me to all I could ask for or wish in a temporal view, and which ought to have resulted in obedience and praise, had a contrary effect. I rested in the gift, and forgot the Giver." In June he received orders to return to Liverpool. (It is interesting that in one biography, this particular day is described as a day he entirely dreaded and did everything in his power to avoid; and it is true, their separation was extremely hard on both of them. Yet, in his memoirs, from the perspective of a mature saint, he said, "Happily for me, in June I received orders to repair to Liverpool. This roused me from my dream.") His ship sailed in Aug. with thirty men. Now, being appointed captain of his own vessel, there was more spare time for leisure. He wrote continually to Mary and found he could express his heart more clearly in writing. During this trip he developed an ability for organizing his spiritual thoughts, and the letters he wrote, he kept as a spiritual journal. He studied Latin which he'd nearly forgotten and again became quite fluent at it. ( In time, though, as the Lord drew him closer, he gave it and his once beloved knowledge of mathematics up as useless treasures, "While I was "spending my labor for that which is not bread," He was pleased to set before me, "wine and milk without money and without price.") He determined to be humane to his crew and held worship service twice every Sunday, officiating himself. He returned again in fourteen months. During this interval between voyages he began keeping a regular journal. In his memoirs he wrote how, as at that time he lived a leisurely life, this lifestyle was detrimental to his spiritual growth. He learned in time the necessity and benefit of hardships. He described the churches he attended, and their teachings as, "the common sort of preaching." With no believing friends he began to experience the feeling of isolation that so many children of God go through as they begin to grow. He read a few books which did give him further insight and growth in the Christian experience and proper doctrine, but he discovered within himself, to his frustration, ..."a cowardly, reserved spirit, for I was afraid of being thought precise. Though I could not live without prayer, I did not propose it, even to my wife, till she herself urged it. I was far from those expressions of zeal and love which seem so suitable to the case of one who has had much forgiven." The season for sailing came around again and once more he embarked in a new ship, in July 1752.

Still in the slave trade, he used his position to try to effect those around him and to "restrain gross irregularites in others." On this voyage he kept tight discipline and by one report held regular bible studies and worship services. He had become convinced that the root of their atheism stemmed from the illiteracy so common in seamen. The men on board resented this and there was a widespread plot of mutiny and murder. By providence, before it could be carried out, two of the insurrectors took ill and one died. Their plot was never taken up again by the others. There were frequent plots of mischief, not only with the crew but also with the slaves. It is said that on this trip his eyes were beginning to open to the fact that the slaves themselves were also made in God's image and had souls, and he began regular prayer and preaching to them as well. ( Later John Newton wrote, "During the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple to it's lawfulness. I was upon the whole satisfied with it as the appointment providence had marked out for me. It was indeed counted a genteel employment, usually very profitable, though to me it did not prove so, the Lord seeing that a large increase of wealth would not be good for me. However, I considered myself as a sort of jailer and I was sometimes shocked with an employment that was perpetually connected with chains, bolts, and shackles. In this view I had often prayed that the Lord, in His own time would place me in a more humane calling, and where I might have more frequent fellowship with His people and ordinances." )

He expected letters from his wife but, accidentally and unknown to him, they were forwarded ahead of him. Because of the punctuality of her writing, he became convinced that this great length of time with no news meant that she had died. His health rapidly deteriorated and he experienced a constant stomach pain for worry, lack of sleep, and loss of appetite. He went through a three week period convinced he would have a heart attack. "I felt some severe symptoms of that mixture of pride and madness which is commonly called a broken heart....How often do the potsherds of the earth presume to contend with their Maker! and what a wonder of mercy is it that they are not all broken!" His conscience attacked him too, he believed it was his punishment for not discussing the things of God with her and for wasting valuable time allotted him for this purpose. Sending a small boat ahead to Antigua, a package of letters was retrieved for him there and his fears were put to rest. "These restored my health and peace, and gave me a strong contrast of the Lord's goodness to me, and my unbelief and ingratitude toward Him." In August of 1753 he returned home for only six weeks.

His last Voyage...

Before his last voyage he unexpectedly met an old friend of his, from when he was stationed aboard the Harwich. This sailor had signed on to a merchant ship and while waiting for orders to sail, the owners went out of business. When John had known him in their youth, he was a serious and religious young man. At that time, John had made it his business to personally extinguish his faith. Much to his great disappointment and guilt, he obviously had been quite successful. They talked at some length during their meeting and John gave his testimony and reasons for his beliefs. Every time his arguments left his friend with no answer, he would remind John that it was none other but he himself who gave him the first ideas for this new "liberty". John invited him to come with him and serve on his ship as his companion. "I hoped, in the course of my voyage, my arguments, example and prayers might have some good effect on him. My intention in this step was better than my judgment, and I had frequent reason to repent it." His friend proved himself to be the mirror image of what John had been to others on earlier voyages. "He was exceedingly profane, and grew worse and worse. ...Besides he was not only deaf to my remonstrances himself, but labored all he could to counteract my influence on others." He became so intolerable to bear that, upon the opportunity of buying a small ship in Africa, John gave him command of it and sent him away to do business on the ship's account. As he sent him away, again he tried to reason with him concerning the Gospel and the state of his soul. Though he seemed affected, once he was out of John's sight and authority, he indulged his appetites and lusts to the fullest. It is said he was like a wild animal set loose and he committed terrible abuses to both the crew and the slaves. However, it didn't last long; he was overtaken by a violent fever which filled him with halucinations and stark terror before he died. "He died convinced but not changed. The account I had from those that were with him was dreadful. His rage and despair struck them all with horror. He pronounced his own fatal doom before he expired, without any appearance that he either hoped or asked for mercy. I thought this awful contrast might not be improper to give you, as a stronger view of distinguishing goodness of God to me, the chief of sinners." Later during this voyage, while sailing for St. Christophers, he contracted a terrible fever, during this illness those around him, including himself, became convinced he would die. He was suffering too from a lack of assurance of his salvation, "But my hopes were greater than my fears, and I felt a silent composure of spirit which enabled me to await the event without much anxiety. My trust, though weak in degree, was fixed upon the blood and righteousness of Jesus. The words, "He is able to save to the uttermost," gave me great relief." He described his fear as not being so much a fear of judgment, but upon thinking about the countless amount of souls constantly entering the next state of existence, "What is my soul...among such an innumerable multitude? Perhaps the Lord will take no notice of me....but at last a text of Scripture occurred to my mind and put an end to my doubt," The Lord knoweth them that are His." By the time they arrived in the West Indies he had fully recuperated. While staying at St. Christopher's, he met a Captain from another ship out of London. He was the first man John had met since his first days as a believer, some six years before, who professed the same faith and desire for Christ as his own. The Lord in His wisdom had granted John fellowship with another believer. They became inseparable for a month. John became his eager student. He learned to be more outgoing about his faith, to speak during social prayer, and to seek the company of those who were like minded. He came to a deeper understanding about many things in the Bible, including a greater understanding of the covenant of grace, the security in it, and the perseverance of the saints ("not by my own power and holiness, but by the mighty power and promise of God, through faith in an unchangeable Savior") He became aware of errors, controversies, and dangerous doctrines of that day, within the structure of the church ( a thing, he hadn't considered until then.) He directed John where to find fellowship in London. John had much to digest on his seven week trip back to England. He arrived in 1754, in August.

 

A providential change of focus...

It was November and he was once again ready to set sail. He'd been praying for and seeking a way to make a living outside of the slave trade and had come under increasing conviction, concerning his involvement with it. His prayer was about to be answered but not in the way he expected. He and his wife were sitting at tea one afternoon when he was suddenly taken with a severe seizure. He became completely paralyzed from head to toe, with the exception that he retained the ability to breathe. The seizure lasted about an hour, then it was followed by constant dizziness and headaches. His doctor forbid him to sail and he resigned his post the next day. ( It is supposed that this was the after affects of one of the sicknesses that he had contracted in Africa, though one biographer attributed this to a stroke.) From the stress of his sudden malady, his wife also succumbed to something even more serious. She unexplainedly became weak and eventually bedridden with an acute sensitivity to the slightest movement or noise. She grew worse everyday and for eleven months she seemed to be wasting away. It was expected that she would die. Meanwhile John looked up Samuel Brewer in London. He was a minister who was recommended to John by the captain he had met on his last voyage. From there, Samuel Brewer introduced him to other serious christians. He taught and counseled John and they became very close friends. He and another friend introduced John to George Whitefield, "His ministry was exceedingly helpful to me". It is said that they too became close and John drew from Mr. Whitefield's ministry his entire life. ( Later, upon George Whitefield's death in 1770, he was offered, but refused, the presidency of his college in Georgia.)

There were two pressing concerns in John's life now: The health of his wife and the fact that as time went by, he needed employment. He moved Mary from Liverpool to London. There, she could receive better care and he could be closer to his Christian friends, although at the same time, the cost of her care was beginning to worry him. He noted a struggle in himself in that he found it easy to trust the Lord in the area of his finances yet he had a difficult time resigning himself to the Lord's will in the outcome of his wife's illness. In August, the same year, a position of Tide Surveyor at Liverpool was offered to him. It was more then what he had hoped for; as he never applied for it, and it was a job that was highly sought after. He was relieved from that concern but Mary's health grew even worse. Again another internal conflict arose because his new job meant he had to be away from her. " I found the promise remarkably fulfilled, of strength proportioned to my need. The day before I set out, and not till then, the burden was entirely taken from my mind. I was strengthened to resign both her and myself to the Lord's disposal". Soon after he left, her health began to improve. In two months she was able to travel to Liverpool to be with him.

When they were settled in a house there, he began to study the things that would be spiritually profitable: The next two years were devoted to learning Greek and Hebrew, having "divorced" himself from Latin, classic literature and mathematics. He learned them well enough to give him an insight into Biblical words and phrases but didn't feel the need to become too scholarly at them. He read some Christian literature but found that that too, took too much time from him and his desire to study the scriptures. He was greatly inspired by Galatians 1:23-24, "But they had heard only, that he which persecuted us in times past now preached the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me." "As my life had been full of remarkable turns, and I seemed selected to show what the Lord could do, I had some hope that sooner or later He might call me into His service."

At the time he had ended writing his memoirs, in 1763, he had already been refused an appointment as minister in the Anglican Church, over not only doctrinal concerns, but also of him being too friendly with evangelists. Yet, he was convicted that the main stream church was the place he could do the most good.( At that time he had many Christian friends who tried to persuade him in other directions. It is said that John Wesley offered him a position as his assistant and there were offers from other ministries including a Presbyterian Church, which he nearly accepted.) He finished his memoirs as he was awaiting direction from the Lord as to which direction he should go, "It is sufficient that He knows how to dispose of me, and that He both can and will do what is best. To Him I command myself. I trust that His will and my true interest are inseparable. To His name be glory."

His autobiography was originally published in 1764 under the title of, "An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of___Communicated in a Series of Letters to the Rev. T. Haweiss" It is said that the young William Cowper read it and was greatly inspired. He became close with John and his wife, even moving, with his adoptive mother, to a cottage next door to them. John was finally appointed the curacy of Olney that same year. It lasted until 1779. He and William Cowper were avid hymn writers, during his fifteen year stay there they wrote "The Olney Hymns". It contained three hundred and forty-nine hymns, sixty-seven of which were written by W. Cowper. In 1779, he became pastor of St. Mary Woolnoth Church in London. It was located in the heart of London in an affluent and influential area. One biographer quoted him as saying, "That one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves should be plucked from his forlorn state of exile on the coast of Africa, and at length be appointed minister of the parish of the first magistrate of the first city of the world; that he should there not only testify of such grace, but stand up as a singular instance and monument of it; that he should be enabled to record it in his history, preaching, and writings to the world at large, is a fact I can contemplate with admiration, but never sufficiently estimate." He continued there till the end of his life, December 21,1807, twenty-eight years later. He was asked on the Wednesday before he died if his mind was comfortable, his reply was, "I am satisfied with the Lord's will." Part of his last will and testament read," I commit my soul to my gracious God and Saviour, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer, and an infidel, and delivered me from that state on the coast of Africa into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me; and Who has been pleased to admit me, though most unworthy, to preach His glorious gospel. I rely with humble confidence upon the atonement, and mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ, God and Man, which I have often proposed to others, as the only foundation whereupon a sinner can build his hope, trusting that He will guard and guide me through the uncertain remainder of my life, and that He will then admit me into His presence in His heavenly kingdom...."

"And his servants said unto him, Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings: let us, I pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes on our heads, and go out to the kings of Israel: peradventure he will save thy life." ...1 Kings 20:31

Throughout the history of the church, God has been pleased to inspire and preserve many of His saints' teachings and testimonies. Some of these are in the form of hymns. Some are personal testimonials, some are for offering praise, some for the purpose of encouraging others, some for teaching psalms and other scriptures, doctrines, the need for salvation, prayer or Biblical truths. Many are written expressly for children. They generally are sung to simple tunes which are melodic and easily stay in our minds and hearts. In our day, when it seems we are surrounded by the electronic media wherever we go, they seem especially valuable in helping us to keep the focus of our minds on Him. In Mark 5:19 Jesus tells us to "go home to thy friends, and tell how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee." : Though we must keep in mind that these hymns are the words of men and not of God, they sing of God's great compassion and are of some value to all who seek to learn them. There are a vast number of these songs which the Lord has graciously blessed within the church. But what about outside, in the world? The number is certainly small, almost non-existent. Around Christmas time the sound of the Gospel-in-song is heard almost as commonly as any other popular music, and certainly some truths of the Gospel are contained, here and there, within some Christmas Carols. Other then that, how many other songs? The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Rock of Ages, Go Tell it on the Mountain, O When the Saints ...are a few that come to mind but arguably the most often played, the most easily remembered and most accurate is Amazing Grace. It's preservation among those outside (as well as in) the church is a testimony in and of itself of the great mercy, longsuffering and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ. The song deals with most of the major doctrines: Salvation by God's grace alone, the only means by which mankind can be made acceptable to God through Jesus Christ; the totally wretched and completely unexceptable state of all men, in God's eyes, hopelessly lost and blind; the gift of the fear of God's righteous justice in the judgment to come on all mankind who are not covered by this grace; the gift of "hope that is not seen" in this grace by His word, the Bible; the preservation of God's people, by way of this grace, throughout their lives until that day; the expectation of being with and the joy of serving our Lord throughout eternity, when the believers will shine as the sun...apart from and unhindered by this "body of death." John Newton was a man under the "same condemnation" that all men share. Through this devotional hymn, based on the experience of his life before and throughout his salvation, God has given men this gift, set aside as "a word in season to him that is weary", and aiding and provoking the still small voice within a hopeless sinner, pointing the way to Christ.


As my source for this condensed account of John Newton's life, I used mainly (but not altogether entirely) Newton's own writings. Newton originally wrote his memoirs in the form of letters written to a trusted friend. These letters were lost and fell into the hands of others and he was concerned about their usage. As a result he rewrote his memoirs from memory. No doubt because he lived a colorful life the wrong people might seek to publish his story only for the purpose of entertainment, and over the years this seems to have been the case. Anything in quotations here, is taken from his own words. Sometimes, in his account, dates and the actual order of the occurence of events are vague. Also, Newton rarely named names, so for the purpose of getting a clearer overview of his life, I used outside biographical information. This was used only to put some of the events of his life in proper order. The actual events themselves were not important for glamorizing, but to show God's great mercy and sustaining hand on him in spite of his incredibly sinful life. After being encouraged by the friend who received the original letters, to proceed with writing and publishing his memoirs, he wrote, "The choice pearls of a Christian are, perhaps, his choice experiences of the Lord's power and love in the concerns of his soul..." Also..."As you and other of my friends apprehend, my compliance with this request may be attended with some good effect, may promote the pleasing work of praise to our adorable Redeemer, or confirm the faith of some or other of his people, I am willing to obey. If God may be glorified on my behalf, and His children in any measure be comforted or instructed, by what I have to declare of His goodness, I shall be satisfied; I am content to leave all other possible consequences of this undertaking in His hands."
Much has been reported about the inhumanity and horrors of the slave trade. It was not only legal, but even thought of as a genteel trade in much of the world then. During most of the 9-10 years he was engaged in this activity, until the age of thirty, Newton himself eagarly took part in it. At first his reason was not only to make his fortune, but it was in this trade that he believed he could legally commit whatever evil his heart desired. Later, even though he became aware that God's hand was upon him, he still believed it to be a respectible way of living. It was only long after his departure from his "slaver" career that he understood the ungodliness of his business. The intention is not to show Newton as a hero or a villain but to show the faith which Jesus Christ installed in the man. Newton's epitah which was inscribed at his own request, on a marble tablet at the last chuch where he preached, St. Mary Woolnoth, London ,"JOHN NEWTON, CLERK. Once an infidel and libertine, A servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior, JESUS CHRIST, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the gospel he had long labored to destroy...." It is said that his testimony of the attrocities of the slave trade was heard by King George III during inquiries into the practice, and added to the result: By two acts of parliment (one in 1807, the second in 1808 ) it became illegal for anyone to transport slaves into or out of all English territories. In 1833, England's Emancipation Act abolished the practice entirely throughout the British Empire.
Bibliography: Out Of The Depths by John Newton, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI 49501; 101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications; Letters of John Newton The Banner of Truth Trust, (USA) PO Box 621, Carlisle, Pennsylvannia 17013; John Newton by Catherine Swift, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55438;
Thomas a Kempis Imitation of Christ can be downloaded from the internet for free; please see "More Newton and Links" below.
Out Of The Depths by John Newton, and Letters of John Newton are both currently in print and may be purchased from a number of christian bookstores on the www.
Pg.1) Home . . . Pg.2) The Melody . . . Pg.4) The Source of John Newton's Inspiration . . . Pg.5) More Newton & Links

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