In London, July 24th, 289 years and one day ago, John Henry Newton was born. You may or may not recognize the name, but you know his most famous creation: Amazing Grace, probably the most beloved hymn in the English language. In honor of Newton’s birthday, here is the condensed version of his life story. (For the full account, read John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken.)
Newton’s father was an unbelieving sailor while his mother was a devout Christian, and those two influences would characterize the remainder of Newton’s life. Elizabeth Newton wanted her son to one day enter the ministry, but she died in 1732 and by the age of eleven Newton joined his father’s ship. From that point on Newton’s life was spent at sea, first in his father’s ship, then the Royal Navy, and finally a slaving vessel . Newton consistently rebelled against authority, however, and his employment by slave trader Amos Chow ended with Newton himself a virtual slave to Chow and his African mistress, “a servant of slaves in West Africa” as Newton’s epitaph remembers. Newton was rescued by a merchant ship, the Greyhound, and left Africa for England in the spring of 1748. But God had something in store for Newton than a peaceful return voyage.
On March 10th, a violent storm struck the Greyhound off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. Newton awoke in the middle of the night to a ship on the verge of sinking. In fear for his life Newton called out to God. The Greyhound survived, and Newton never forgot the experience.
You might expect at this point a dramatic life-alteration, a “was blind but now I see” type conversion. Not quite. Something had changed in Newton’s heart, but it took years for Newton to begin walking as a faithful Christian. In fact, after this encounter with God Newton became the captain of several slaving vessels. Still, that stormy night marked the beginning of God’s pursuit of Newton – and God always gets his man. Gradually Newton began to realize the extent of what God had done for him in Christ, and what that meant for his life and conduct. He retired from the sea in 1754 and entered the ministry in 1764. Over the next 43 years, Newton pastored congregations in Olney and London. He wrote numerous hymns; Amazing Grace was created to go along with a New Year’s day sermon in 1773. He also wrote several books, including a narrative of his conversion; wrote a vast quantity of letters of spiritual advice; and influenced numerous younger ministers and Christians, including statesman William Wilberforce, the man God used to lead the movement to abolish the slave trade. Newton died December 21st, 1807 at the age of 82.
From “servant of slaves,” slave-trader, and slave of sin to slave of Christ and son of God. Newton’s story is more colorful and dramatic than most of ours – but only from one perspective. In God’s sight, in the eyes of the angels who rejoice in heaven over one repentant sinner, every conversion – whether in a sinking ship or a kneeling by your bed in the quiet of the night – is a miracle of God’s power comparable only to the creation of the world itself (see 2 Cor. 4:6). Because of that, every Christian knows the thrill of singing, with Newton and every other son and daughter of the Lord:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me.
I was once lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.