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The man behind Amazing Grace: John Newton, who was once an atheist and slave trader, became a Christian minister and abolitionist. His testimony of that transformation is now a world-famous hymn.

"The storms of life" is a common metaphor, but for a young English atheist and slave merchant named John Newton, it was a literal description. The ship he was traveling on--the Greyhound--was off the coast of Newfoundland. It was March 9, 1748.

Since Newton was a passenger, not a crewman, he had time to spare. Looking for something to do, he began reading The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis' classic study of spiritual life. Kempis' warnings of God's judgment disturbed Newton, who had been living a tempestuous life. He threw the book aside.

In the early roosting hours of the next day, a violent storm arose. The sea pounded the Greyhound so hard that part of her side was smashed in. The upper timbers of the ship were torn away and it was in danger of sinking. "Pumping's useless! Nothing can save this ship, or us!" a veteran sailor shouted.

All seemed lost. Nevertheless, Newton and the crew pumped from 5 a.m. until noon. Then, tired and afraid, Newton cried out, "If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us!" He was startled by his own words. The militant atheist who was raised as a Christian but had stopped believing in God--had not asked Him for anything in years.

After 11 hours, the storm ended and by the following day, the crew had managed to pump the ship free of water. The Greyhound survived. Newton began to think about the religion he had once believed in so firmly and about his own evil behavior. He later wrote, "I thought that if the Christian religion were true, I could not be forgiven, and therefore was expecting, and almost at times wishing, to know the worst."

There were still more troubles for the Greyhound. The storm had blown the ship far off course. Food supplies ran low. The crew had to pump continuously to keep the ship afloat. The ship's captain even decided that Newton himself was somehow to blame for it all. But at last they sighted Ireland and anchored.

"When we came into this port," Newton wrote, "our very last victuals were boiling in the pot. Before we had been there two hours, the wind began to blow with great violence. If we had continued at sea that night in our shattered, enfeebled condition, we would to all human appearance, have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God who hears every prayer ... though I can see no reason why the Lord singled me out for mercy."

Miraculously, it seemed to Newton, the ship survived. That physical salvation became the turning point of Newton's life. The man who later described himself as a wretch and "one of Satan's undertempters" changed his life, dedicating it to God. In the course of that transformation he would leave the slave trade and become an abolitionist whose influence helped lead Great Britain to outlaw chattel slavery. He would also become a minister and write one of the world's most beloved hymns: Amazing Grace.

Newton's Early Years

John Newton was born in London on July 24, 1725. His mother was a pious, shy woman who lovingly read the Bible to her son, sang hymns with him and gave him religious instruction. His Father John Newton Sr. commanded merchant ships in the Mediterranean trade. However, Captain Newton was stem and authoritarian, with an "air of distance and severity." which overawed and discouraged his son. To the young John Newton's relief, his father would spend only a few weeks at home between long voyages.

Newton's mother taught him to read by the time he was four and began teaching him arithmetic and Latin before he was six. She died of tuberculosis when he was seven. His father remarried, but the loss of his mother was devastating, and young Newton became disrespectful and difficult. He was soon sent to a boarding school in Essex, where the staff wielded the cane and the birch rod to motivate learners. Newton later confided in a letter that the severity of his school experience "almost broke my sprat and relish for books."

At age 10. Newton went to sea with his father as an apprentice sailor. There he learned sailing and navigation. He made six voyages with his father, visiting many Mediterranean ports, before the elder Newton retired. By his teens he had become an expert sailor.

The young Newton, still clinging loosely to his religious upbringing given to him by his mother, also tested his faith by meditating, abstaining from meat, reading pious books and keeping long silences. But nothing seemed to provide the sense of the love he'd felt from his mother and, under her spiritual direction, from God.

As Newton grew into adolescence he became more convinced that his father didn't love him. Newton therefore acted up in various ways to get his father's attention--ways that were, he later wrote, "exceeding wickedness." Having finally abandoned the faith of his childhood, he swore terrible curses. He blasphemed and ridiculed Christian belief. He drank to excess. He fought with anyone who crossed him. His violent, angry behavior repeatedly got him into trouble and brought him disgrace, leading him to stray farther and farther from his mother's religious instruction. Eventually, he turned against his religion and refused to pray. He later confessed his past debauchery, and also provided an account of his transformation, in An Authentic Narrative. "I believe for some years I never was an hour in any company without attempting to corrupt them," he wrote.

Slave Trader

At the age of 17, while visiting his mother's relatives at Chatham, Newton met and fell in love with Mary Catlett, who was three-plus years younger than he. Mary's manner and piety reminded him of his mother. He was so smitten by the young girl that he missed sailing on the ship to which his father had assigned him. The attraction proved mutual and seven years later, in February of 1750, Newton married Mary. But that is getting ahead of the story.

In 1744, Newton was impressed into British naval service as a midshipman on a man-of-war, the H.M.S. Harwich. The next year midshipman Newton set sail on an East Indies voyage, which was to last five years. Lovesick and headstrong, he found the situation intolerable. When the ship stopped briefly at Plymouth, he deserted to return to Mary. However, before reaching Chatham he was captured, publicly flogged as a deserter and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.

At his own request, Newton was transferred from the Royal Navy to what Roots author Alex Haley described as "a ship that ranked lowest in the maritime world--a ship engaged in the slave trade." Not quite 20, Newton later said of himself, "From this time I was exceedingly vile." The female slaves on board were at the crew's disposal, so the crewmen indulged themselves sexually at will. Newton never explicitly confessed to doing so, but his personal writings hint that he may have.

The ship took Newton to the coast of Sierra Leone. There he became the servant of an unnamed English slave dealer and learned the trade of buying and selling slaves. Several of Newton's biographers claim that the name of the slave trader was Clow. The trader's common-law African wife, known as "P.I.," hated Newton. During one of her husband's absences, she brutally abused Newton by denying him food and water when he fell badly ill. Somehow he survived. When P.I.'s husband returned, he didn't believe Newton's stories of mistreatment and instead treated Newton as badly as his wife did. Newton later wrote that he was "rather pitied than scorned by the meanest [lowest] of her slaves." He spent more than a year on his captor's plantation in virtual bondage. His life had reached its nadir.

When another English trader showed up, Newton's captor released him because he was ashamed of being seen mistreating a fellow Englishman. Newton then went to work for the newly-arrived trader; he traveled up and down the nearby rivers, buying slaves who were being held for sale to slave ships.

Meanwhile, Newton's father had urged a ship-owning friend to ask all slave-ship captains working along the African coast to search for his son and bring him home. In February 1747, the ship Greyhound arrived in Sierra Leone. The ship's captain, who knew of the elder Newton's search for his son, found Newton. Although Newton did not want to return to England to see his father, he wanted to see Mary, so he went with the captain. After 15 months as a virtual slave and servant, he was now free. However, the ship would take a year to get home.

It was during that return voyage when the Greyhound and its crew were nearly sent to the bottom of the Atlantic. After arriving in Ireland, Newton wrote to his father, who by that time had given him up for lost. The older Newton must have been overjoyed to learn that his son was safe. He was about to leave for Hudson Bay and wanted his son to go with him. But his ship sailed before the younger Newton reached England.

The son wanted to apologize to his father and ask forgiveness lot all the trouble he had caused. Tragically, however, he never saw his father again because the captain drowned in 1750, while swimming at Fort York.

Troubled Conscience

After his conversion, John Newton continued in the slave trade, becoming captain of his own ship in 1750. "During the time I was engaged in the slave trade," he recollected in An Authentic Narrative, "I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness." Slave trading was generally regarded as respectable as well as essential to Britain's prosperity. Only a few protests had been raised, and it would be more than three decades before there was enough public support in England to start a Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Nevertheless, Newton's gradual conversion to Christianity influenced his behavior as a slave trader. Since he was again praying and reading the Bible, he held Sunday prayer services for his crewmen. He also wrote and delivered prayers seeking God's protection for them from storms and other perils.

Yet, as Newton's faith grew, his conscience began to trouble him. The "groans, and agonies, and blood of the poor Africans," which he described in his 1788 anti-slavery pamphlet Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, bespoke great inhumanity to Newton. Therefore, he began to treat his slave cargoes mercifully, with as much kindness as his concern for the safety of his ship and crew would allow, since there was always the possibility of a slave uprising.

Although it was standard practice to pack ships so full of slaves that they could barely move, Newton gave his slaves a little more space. "Very few slave ships made it to the Americas without losing many of the slaves to sickness, suicide, or mutiny," Jim Haskins, a biographer of Newton, stated. "On one of his voyages, John Newton did not lose a single slave. He was one of the few slave-ship captains in history to do so."

In August 1754, while sitting at home drinking tea with Mary, Newton suffered a minor stroke. It lasted about an hour and then he recovered, but he was left with sufficient pain and dizziness in his head that his physicians said it would not be safe or prudent for him to return to sea. His ship was to sail soon, but "I resigned the command the day before she sailed; and thus I was unexpectedly called from that service and freed from a share of the future consequences of that voyage which proved extremely calamitous. The person who went in my room, most of the officers, and many of the crew, died and the vessel was brought home with great difficulty."

In An Authentic Narrative, Newton wrote of his growing desire to get out of the business. "I had often prayed that the Lord in His own time would be pleased to place me in a more humane calling," he recalled. "I longed to be freed from these long separations from home, which were often hard to bear. My prayers were now answered, though in a way I little expected."

Christian Minister

Newton gave up seafaring and the slave trade altogether. In 1755, he was appointed the official tide surveyor for Liverpool, a form of customs officer charged with searching for contraband. He held the position until 1764. During that time he continued the self-education he had begun during his sailing days. His studies included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, mathematics and the Bible. He also came to know and admire the clergymen John Wesley and George Whitefield. Wesley was the founder of Methodism. Whitefield was a deacon in the Church of England, an evangelistic preacher and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church. Newton became his enthusiastic disciple.

Under their influence, Newton decided to become a minister, but was undecided between the Methodist and Anglican faiths. In 1764, after a period of study, Newton was ordained at age 39 as a deacon and a priest in the Church of England. He then took a position as curate at a parish in the town of Olney, in Buckinghamshire.

Newton loved his parishioners, calling them "brothers and sisters." Not only did he wear his old sea coat, but he also told stories from the pulpit of his seafaring life, his great sins and his own unworthiness to preach the Gospel. Because of his personal manner and the publication of his Authentic Narrative, his church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged with another gallery. He also preached in other parts of the country.

In 1767 the poet William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends. Cowper was one of the most popular poets of his time. He helped Newton with his regular weekly church services and with his tours to other places. They also began a series of weekly prayer meetings. They set a goal of writing a new hymn for each meeting and collaborated on the writing.

Hymns were a relatively new form of Protestant religious song. For centuries, psalm-singing had been the primary form of devotional music. The result of the Newton-Cowper collaboration was Olney Hymns, published in 1779 and often thereafter. Their work achieved lasting popularity and greatly influenced English hymnology. The first edition of Olney Hymns contained 280 pieces by Newton and 68 by Cowper. Most notable was Amazing Grace, written sometime between 1760-70, possibly as late as 1773.

Newton also kept extensive journals and shipboard logs, and wrote many letters. His Journal of a Slave Trader, recounting his three voyages from 1750-54, has been described as a complete day-to-day record of the Negro slave trade at the middle of the 18th century. These accounts, together with his Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade and his autobiography, comprise the most detailed records of the slave trade from a ship captain's perspective known to exist. Historians credit them for much of what is known today about the 18th century slave trade.

Avowed Abolitionist

In 1780 Newton accepted an offer to become rector of a distinguished church in London, St. Mary Woolnoth, officiating and preaching there until his death 27 years later. He drew large congregations and influenced many. His constant message, even to London's elite, was that he himself was living proof God could save the very worst.

In London he entered the last, most influential, phase of his transformation--that of abolitionist. As a young man he had entered the slave trade "ignorantly, considering it as the line of life which Divine Providence had allotted me." But over time he changed his view. In An Authentic Narrative, he noted his doubts about the morality of the slave trade. As his awareness of the inhumanity of slavery grew, he became convinced that traffic in human flesh was immoral --and he felt great shame for his role in it.

In 1785, Newton began delivering sermons condemning the practice. No political party would touch the subject, but Newton courageously spoke out. In Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, which begins by quoting the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), he declared the African slave trade to be "unlawful and wrong" and declared that it was humiliating to him to think that "I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." In the political arena, Newton alone could speak from personal experience--something the pro-slave trade forces could not counter.

Also in 1785, a young political figure named William Wilberforce reencountered Newton. Years earlier, as a boy, William had met Newton through his aunt, Hannah Wilberforce, and had come under Newton's influence. Now 26, very wealthy and a member of Parliament, Wilberforce had recently experienced a religious awakening and conversion to evangelical Christianity. But "reborn" as he was, in his privileged state he could see no purpose for his life.

He sought out the 60-year-old Newton for spiritual counsel and asked him if he should leave Parliament for the ministry. Newton advised him not to. God, he said, could make Wilberforce "a blessing both as a Christian and as a statesman." Although Wilberforce already had antislavery sentiments on the basis of religion and humanitarianism, he found in Newton's anti-slavery sermons a life-changing cause and became a leader in the campaign to abolish slavery.

In 1789 Newton himself spoke to the Privy Council (an advisory group to the monarch), including Prime Minister William Pitt, on the evils of slavery. He vividly described, based on firsthand observation, how slaves with irons on their hands and feet were packed in ships "like books upon a shelf.... And every morning more instances than one are found of the living and the dead fastened together." The next year he gave evidence against the slave trade to a committee of the House of Commons.

In March 1807, Parliament finally passed Wilberforce's bill abolishing slave traffic on British ships and the importation of slaves to British colonies, undoubtedly pleasing Newton. However, he did not live to see chattel slavery itself abolished; it would be another 26 years before that was outlawed on British soil by passage of Wilberforce's Emancipation Act.

Near the end of his life, Newton described himself as "once an infidel and libertine" who was mercifully "appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy." On December 21, 1807, at the age of 82, John Newton died and was buried in the vault of St. Mary Woolnoth and was placed next to his beloved Mary, who had passed away in 1790. His final words were "I am a great sinner ... and Christ is a great Savior."

The great deliverance of John Newton nearly 60 years of slow, incremental change expressing a spiritual conversion made in extremis--resulted in a man secure in his belief that God's unending patience with him and His amazing grace would lead him home.

The Story of Amazing Grace

by John White

Amazing Grace has been recorded more than any other hymn in the world. It has broad appeal not only among Christian denominations, but to other religions and to people with no religious affiliation.

Musically, the haunting melody is major pentatonic and suggests a bagpipe tune; indeed, it is frequently performed on bagpipes and has become associated with that instrument as a funeral dirge. The familiar melody was not composed by Newton and its origin is uncertain. It is believed by some musicologists to be Scottish or Irish in origin; others claim that it is an American folk melody.

Lyrically, the words of the song are simple; Newton intended them to be understood and felt by plain people. His Olney parishioners were largely poor, uneducated people.

The verses, published with no title in Olney Hymns, had no definite melody affixed to them and only gradually came to be known as Amazing Grace. Several tunes were used until the verses appeared in a hymnal called Virginia Harmony published in South Carolina in 1831. It was the first time the words and a tune were published together. That tune was the now-inseparable and unforgettable melody so widely loved.

Though Newton wrote six verses, the last three have been generally disregarded while new ones by other people have been used in various versions of the hymn. The verses, as published in the first edition of Olney Hymns in 1779 and in the 1808 edition, follow.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd 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 reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!

Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

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.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine:
But God, who call'd me here below.
Will be forever mine.


From England, Amazing Grace spread to southern U.S. churches, both black and white, to the fields of rural America, and to prisons. In the 20th century it became a gospel and folk standard. Judy Collins' 1970 a cappella recording brought it into pop music as a top seller. In 1996 the Music Educators National Conference compiled a list of songs that, in their view, all Americans should be able to sing in order to preserve an important part of the national culture. Amazing Grace was one of those songs.
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Title Annotation:History--Faith In Action
Author:White, John
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 9, 2004
Words:3667
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