Who Was John Newton?
John Newton was a former slave trader who eventually became a Church of England minister of the gospel after his conversion. After his conversion, he became an outspoken abolitionist of this evil trade of slaves.
He is mostly known as the author of the beautiful and powerful hymn, Amazing Grace.
“Amazing Grace” is definitely one of the best-known Christian hymns of all time. It is an extremely popular hymn which can be heard in churches all over the world.
In some respects, it is the fact that John Newton was once a slave trader that resonates with those of us who love this hymn.
In his later years, he categorized himself as an “old African blasphemer”.
John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, London. He is the only child of Elizabeth and John Newton.
His father was a merchant ship captain while Elizabeth Newton, who was a pious Dissenter/Nonconformist, was responsible for teaching John Newton how to read Scripture.
She also taught him to memorize Reformed hymns and catechisms too.
During that time, around 1% of the city’s population actively went to churches run by Puritan groups.
He and his mother attended a Congregational (Independent) church in London, and it was his mother’s dream for him to become a minister. John Newton’s simple life changed when he was 7 years old as he lost his mother to tuberculosis.
His spiritual training ended and from age 11 to 17, he went on five sea voyages with his father.
In the year 1742 his father retired and found a great job with the Royal African Company.
His father planned a great life for his son to be successful and rich. As the first step of his plan, he arranged for his son to set sail with a Liverpool ship-owner to Jamaica.
However, during this time, John Newton aged seventeen, fell madly in love with a girl named Mary Catlett and decided to ditch the planned voyage.
So, his furious father, sent him on a long voyage as a common sailor without his protection to discipline him.
His life at sea was truly hard, especially when he was forced at age 19 to enlist in the British Royal Navy. On the Harwich (a man-of-war ship), he was a crewman.
Unfortunately for his father, John’s love for Mary Catlett never faded and he attempted to run away to her.
For this infringement, he was badly flogged and chained in iron for weeks after getting caught.
Later, he met Mr. Clow, a slave trader, and ended up taking a job with him on an island located nearby Sierra Leone on the West African coast.
However, his living and mental condition worsened during this time; he dubbed this time as the lowest point in his spiritual experience.
John Newton Experiences God’s Grace
In 1747, John Newton managed to escape the island and took work abroad on a ship based out of Liverpool, the Greyhound.
This is when his life would take a drastic turn which changed the course of history in a way. His life on this ship was bearable and he found solace in reading the Bible and “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis.
The following year (1748) on March 21, the ship encountered a violent North Atlantic storm and everyone on board, including John Newton, thought this is how they will meet their end.
John Newton, for the first time in a long time, feebly recalled Bible verses on God’s grace and whispered them to himself.
Miraculously, the ship and the people onboard survived, and he marked the day as the day of his conversion or “the hour he first believed”.
Surrounded With Joy and Peace
He returned to England on 12th February 1750 and married the love of his life, Mary Catlett and for the rest of his life stayed devoted to her only.
As a married man, he had to fulfill certain responsibilities, thus, took the role of a captain during the next five years on two different slave ships. I
n 1755, he left his life at the sea and took a government job in Liverpool as a “Tide Surveyor”. During this time, he had ample time to go to church and eventually was heavily influenced by John Wesley and George Whitefield, the “Great Awakening” preacher.
When John Newton was aged 39 (1764), he became a Church of England minister. His parish was in Olney, a small village in Buckinghamshire.
John Newton and Hymn Writing
Once he settled in Olney, John Newton began to write hymns that were simple yet heartfelt.
Most scholars who have studied the life of John Newton have concluded that many of these hymns were autobiographical in nature.
He wrote hymns to speak to the specific need of his sermons or to compliment his church members.
In the year 1767, the English poet William Cowper came to live in Olney and shortly thereafter became good friends with John Newton.
He began to write Anglican hymns with him shortly after. The “Olney Hymns” was published by both of them in the year 1779.
It was a collection that celebrated not only spiritual inspiration but also their incredible friendship.
Besides the world-famous hymn “Amazing Grace”, Newton is also known as the creator of “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”. It featured 348 hymns out of which he wrote 280 of them.
John Newton’s Later Life and Death
After an invitation, John Newton decided to become a rector of one of the most esteemed parishes of London, St. Mary Woolnoth in the year 1779.
He served this parish until his death. Many people from all over England visited the parish just to receive his spiritual advice, hear him sing his hymns, and hear him preach.
He became blind towards the end of his life, yet it did not stop him from preaching.
Once involved in trading slaves, John Newton later in his life devoted much of his time and effort to abolishing slavery.
He encouraged William Wilberforce, the leader of the movement supporting the abolishment of the slave trade.
William always turned to him for counsel after he converted to Christianity in the year 1785. John Newton supported his campaign and contributed heavily by writing up a tract promoting abolition (Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, 1787) and providing evidence to the Privy Council.
In 1807 on 21st December, John Newton left this earthly plane after meeting a peaceful death at the age of eighty-two. He was buried at St. Mary Woolnoth next to his beloved wife who died in 1790 due to cancer.
Below are more hymn Stories and lyrics:
Forty Days and Forty Nights Lyrics, Story, and Video
Where the Soul Never Dies Lyrics, Story, and Video
I Will Make the Darkness Light Lyrics, Story, and Video
Heavenly Sunshine Lyrics, Story, and Video