Hymn Stories – John Newton (1725 – 1807)
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.
John Newton crammed a lot of living into his 82 years. His mother died when he was
six years old, and he joined his father at sea when he was eleven. He served his
apprenticeship as a sailor, and rose through the ranks until he became the captain
of a slave ship. He abandoned the religious training that he had experienced as a
child, and reveled in the dissolute life of a slave trader. He was noted for his
profanity and his cruelty, and was even known as ‘The Great Blasphemer’.
But one stormy night off the coast of Donegal, when his ship had been holed and was
in danger of sinking, and he was in danger of drowning, Newton had a real change
of heart. Newton called out to God as the ship filled with water. After he called
out, the cargo flowed out and stopped up the hole, and the ship was able to drift
to safety. It might have been his religious training at his mother's knee surfacing
after all those years –– or it might have been his love for Mary Catlett, a Christian
woman whom he later married –– or it might have been his reading of the book, Imitation
of Christ, by William Law –– or it might have been all three. In any event, Newton
had a real conversion experience. However, as he was to admit later, "I cannot consider
myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word."
For a while, Newton continued on his slave ship, but he began to treat both the slaves
and his crew with a good deal more compassion. Finally, convinced that the slave
trade was wrong, he left his ship and took a job onshore.
He then felt a call to the ministry, and was ordained at age forty and assigned to
a church at Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton wrote many hymns, including How Sweet
the Name of Jesus Sounds and Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, but he is best remembered
for Amazing Grace, which is in a sense Newton's own story. It was amazing grace that
saved him, and it was amazing grace that was the focus of his preaching.
He continued in ministry through the rest of his long life, even after failing eyesight
made it impossible for him to read. Newton never ceased to be amazed by God's grace
and, nearing the end of his life, told his friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but
I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."