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."     

Eddie Newall



Hymn Stories

John Newton

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