Some of us are tired of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” thinking it’s overplayed and lacks freshness. I can relate to this, yet its words—especially when viewed in the context of when and by whom they were written—give me a fresh wave of wonder at grace freely given. John Newton (1725-1807), who wrote this hymn and many others, was marred by the stain of the slave trade both before and after he accepted Christ. How do we reconcile these two things? Let’s take a closer look at this influential man who saw the ugliness of his sin and the greater beauty of Christ’s mercy.
John Newton’s mother had a strong Christian influence over him. She taught him Scripture, catechisms, and hymns, including those of well-known hymn writer Isaac Watts. However, she died before he turned seven, so her ability to nurture him in the ways of the Lord ceased. When he was just eleven years old, he went on a voyage with his father, who was a merchant navy captain and arguably not as positive of an influence as his mother.
Newton spent most of his childhood and adolescent years at sea. He was press-ganged (compulsorily recruited) into the Royal Navy, which he later deserted due to his desire to be with his future wife Mary, whom he loved dearly. But he was soon caught again, put in irons, and flogged. After the navy he became involved in the slave trade, but he was treated poorly and was soon left begging for food. He was left with a slave trader in West Africa, whose wife—a princess of the Sherbro people—abused him and accused him of theft. After a few years of enslavement and mistreatment at her hands, Newton was rescued and returned to England.
Newton gave in to temptation without pause and lived for the pleasures of the world. He briefly worked in a merchant’s office but lost the job due to “unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint.” After each fall, he would remember what his mother taught him and attempt to turn things around, but without grasping the Lord’s grace, his religion was powerless and temporary.
Conversion & Contradiction
One day in 1748, when caught in a severe storm at sea, Newton prayed for God to have mercy, and the storm began to calm. It was on this night that he was made aware of the wickedness of his sins, but he was finally convinced of something else, too—that God’s grace could save even him. By the time they returned from their voyage, he was converted. However, he later admitted, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”
Though Newton noticed a growing sympathy for the slaves he handled, he continued working in the trade. At times he fell to the temptations of lust and love of money. It was years before he stopped his work in the slave trade, but once he did, he was active in fighting against slavery.
Some critics say it is hypocrisy that a Christian continues in a manner of egregious sin, such as Newton continuing in the slave trade even after his conversion. But perhaps it is a more overt example of God’s continuing, gradual work in changing hearts. Salvation and justification is instant, but sanctification is a whole life’s work.
Ministry and “Olney Hymns”
Newton was married in 1750 and later adopted his two orphaned nieces. As he grew in knowledge of theology and doctrine as well as increasing conviction from the Spirit, Newton’s eyes were opened to the hideousness of the sin of slavery. In 1754 he left the slave trade for good. Later in life, he referred to himself as “the old African blasphemer.”
He left the sea in 1755 and, greatly influenced by George Whitefield and others, he began to pursue ministry, desiring to share God’s good news for sinners. It took years for his ordination application to be accepted, but finally, in 1764, he was ordained in the Church of England. He began serving at the parish of Olney, where he would stay for sixteen years. He was very influential in the lives of his parishioners, who loved his preaching and also interacted with him in daily life. Despite his brilliance, influence, and continuing legacy, Newton loved ministering in the small, poor parish. He wasn’t afraid of humility and low status, declaring, “I get more warmth and light sometimes by a letter from a plain person who loves the Lord Jesus, though perhaps a servant maid, than from some whole volumes, put forth by learned Doctors.”
Newton started a weekly prayer service, which he continued for a few years. Poet and lay minister William Cowper helped lead. Newton was very influential in Cowper’s life, which was fraught with debilitating doubt and depression. Together the two men wrote hymns to sing at the prayer meetings, and they would later be published as the “Olney Hymns.” Newton understood people and how the Lord relates to us, and he was able to articulate this through his hymns.
Later in his life, Newton became more vocal about slavery and active in abolishing it. In 1788 he published a pamphlet titled Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade. He publicly repented for his active involvement in the trade. He also influenced activists such as Hannah More and William Wilberforce, who both devoted much of their lives to abolitionist work.
Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on March 25, 1807. Slavery itself wouldn’t be abolished until 1833, but this was a momentous step in the long fight.
Newton died that same year on December 21, 1807. Over two hundred years later, Newton is remembered for his fight against the slave trade. His hymns are sung worldwide, and his legacy lives on.
It is inspiring to see John Newton’s faith to stand up for the truth and push against the tide of accepted cultural norms that violate God’s Word. For more on Newton’s life, read Chris Armstrong’s article in Christian History magazine. Consider sharing the story of John Newton with your children through the animated Torchlighters episode (available to stream for free at RedeemTV.org). Accompanying study guide and activity pages are also available.
Image source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/The New York Public Library