Amazing Grace and John Newton
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.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, 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 called me here below,
Will be forever mine.”
The last stanza is by an unknown author; it appeared as early as 1829 in the Baptist Songster, by R. Winchell (Wethersfield, Connecticut), as the last stanza of the song “Jerusalem My Happy Home.”
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.”
The following original narrative is by Chris Armstrong: Copyright © 2004 by the author of Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography Magazine
The “Old African Blasphemer”
The “old African blasphemer.” This was how John Newton (July 23, 1725-December 21, 1807) often referred to himself in later life. Such a self-characterization may seem like false humility. After all, by 1800 no evangelical clergyman had gained more fame or exercised more spiritual influence than Newton. He was loved and trusted by thousands; he preached in one of the most prestigious parishes of London; young ministers competed to stay with him and learn under the spiritual master. But Newton knew well the darkness in the heart of every person.
The Early Years
John Newton was born in Wapping, London, an only child, in 1725. His mother, a pious Dissenter from the Anglican church, taught him to read Scripture and memorize Reformed catechisms and hymns. Together they attended an Independent (Congregational) church in London, at a time when barely one percent of that city’s population went to churches associated with that Puritan-derived group.
Tragically, at age 7, in July, 1732, Elizabeth Nee Seatclife Newton died of tuberculosis, leaving John motherless. The burden of child rearing became the responsibility of the less religious, and more indifferent care of his sea-captain father, John Newton. Captain Newton’s main solution was to take his son with him in his travels.
From age 11 to 17 John accompanied his father on five sea voyages that proved a stern and thorough education in seamanship. After the last voyage, Captain Newton retired.
In the long interims between each voyage, Newton was allowed by his stepmother to run free, and as a result Young Newton was able to get himself into significant adolescent trouble.
Though he fell repeatedly into temptation and sin during these formative years, there remained a religious element in his heart, instilled there by his godly mother. Newton constantly resolved to be different and start to live the life his mother had shown him.
On each of these occasions, he turned for a time to such Christian disciplines as prayer, reading Christian material, and the keeping of spiritual diaries. In all of these activities, he later remembered, his chief aim was not to please God, but to escape damnation. There was a war in the soul of young Mr. Newton. Like Saul of Tarsus he became a wretched man, torn between worlds.
Trying to Find a Personal Fortune
In 1742, John’s father retired from the sea and took a shore job with the Royal Africa Company. Captain John began to dream of a future for his son whereby he would eventually become a Member of Parliament. The long journey to Parliament would begin by learning how to oversee slaves, and grow sugar on a plantation in Jamaica. Captain Newton arranged for his son to go to Jamaica with a ship-owner from Liverpool, England, who had interests in both slaves and sugar. John could learn from him.
However, John’s plans, dreams, and ambitions were not the same as his father, especially after the impulsive and strong willed 17-year-old sailor met Mary Catlett, the daughter of family friends at the Catletts’ large estate in Kent. John fell deeply in love with Mary, and decided he would not sail to Jamaica. He would stay near Mary and court her.
When Captain John learned his son had defied his well laid plans, he was outraged. The young man obviously needed discipline, and to learn proper respect. He was far too young and irresponsible to take a wife. There was a merchant ship sailing to the Mediterranean Sea. John was to be on board. Moreover, John would sail as a common sailor, without his father’s paternal protection from the harshness of the seaman’s life.
It was while he was in the company of this rough crew that John Newton soon cast off the last restraints of his former religious scruples. By his own testimony he began smoking and swearing, and indulged his lusts at the journey’s destination, the city of Venice, Italy. The God he had learned to formally worship at his mother’s knee seemed a cold and distant God with no claim on his life. John was not an atheist, but he would live as one.
A Disturbing Dream
The time came for the ship to return back to England. One night on the voyage back from Venice, Newton had a remarkable dream. He dreamed that he was walking on the ship’s deck when a stranger gave him a very valuable ring, cautioning him to protect it well, for it was the key to all happiness. In his dream, Newton placed the ring on his finger, but soon faced another stranger, who ridiculed his faith in the ring. As John listened to mockery and the reasoning of the second man, he was compelled to pull the ring from his finger and cast it overboard. Of course, the moment he had done so, the tempter told him he had in fact cast away God’s mercy, and must now be consigned to eternal fire in hell.
Still dreaming, Newton was terrorized. A state of anxiety took possession of his whole being as he awaited his certain fate. But then, another stranger, or perhaps it was the first person in his dream, came to his rescue, and recovered the ring for him from the depths of the ocean. However, the stranger said he would not give the ring back to John, telling him the ring should be kept in trust. The precious ring could not be entrusted in the care of such a foolish young man as John proved himself to be.
With that, the dream ended and John Newton awoke. He was still on board ship. He was still out at sea. But surely, like the patriarch Jacob in the Old Testament, John Newton had been visited by God in a dream.
For a few weeks after the dream, Newton was disturbed enough to temporarily reform, like many people who engaged in moral reformation. John tempered his involvement with the roughness and vulgarity of the other sailors, for a little while. He even embraced some of his former religious habits.
However, by the time the ship reached landfall, in December 1743, John Newton had once again cast aside his religious disciplines, and like the dog returning to its vomit, like the sow that was washed to her wailing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22), John returned to the life of sin he loved so well.
An Unexpected Turn
Upon returning to England, John immediately went to see the love of his life Mary, which in turn led to him missing a second voyage—on which he would have been an officer. This misadventure would cost John dearly, for on March 1, 1744, while traveling to see Mary, his life took an unexpected turn. With the unmistakable physical characteristics of a sailor, and with no sea papers as a legitimate merchantman, Newton fell prey to a naval press-gang.
A press gang consisted of men on the prowl for suitable individuals to be pressed into the naval service by the Royal Navy. Basically, individuals would be kidnapped while going about their daily life, and be taken aboard ship.
It was a wretched practice that would, in 1812, be a contributing cause leading to war with the United States.
Upon finding out what had become of his son, Captain John tried to intervene in his son’s terrible fate, but to no avail. John Newton found himself a lowly crewman aboard a man-o’-war of the Royal Navy, the Harwich.
Life in the Royal Navy was horrible beyond words. John soon found himself forced into hard labor with little food. He was whipped and cursed and flogged from dawn till dusk and into the night. The thinking at this time was only hard labor, and strict discipline, could prepare young sailors for the harshness of the sea, and the dangers on the military ships of the Royal Navy.
The spirit of John Newton was soon broken, and in a state of despair he was subject to worldly wisdom. On board ship was the captain’s clerk, a man named Mitchell, who was a free-thinker. That meant that he had no respect for God or for the church.
Mitchell openly spoke against God and against the church, as he espoused a view of hedonism. “We must eat, drink, and be merry,” he cried, “for tomorrow we die and pass into extinction.”
The dire circumstances into which he had been thrust caused John Newton to think that Mitchell was right. He should totally abandon the God of his mother and all the religious restraints she had tried to instill in him. He should not be so double minded, but go with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
“Figuratively speaking, Newton took the precious ring of his dream from his finger and threw it overboard” (Chris Armstrong).
When a person initially crosses the line into a life of sin, there is a false sense of absolute freedom that is felt. It seems that a big burden has been lifted off the shoulders, much like a young person feels new freedom after graduation, or leaves home to work or study. The mind seems to say, “I can do what I want, when I want. I am free.”
Enjoying the sudden release of his new creed of self-centeredness, John Newton became friends with a younger man, midshipman Job Lewis, who, at that time, still embraced just enough religious convictions to restrain him from embracing the low morals of the other sailors on board the ship. That was not to last. With clever arguments and passion, John Newton soon put a wedge between Job Lewis and his moral and spiritual restrains.
Such is the nature of evil. Not only do people want to do wrong, they want others to join them in rebellion against God, as Eve immediately gave the fruit of the tree to Adam, and he did eat. Evil is militant, and will persist in persuading others to accept its wicked agenda, be it atheism, abortion, infanticide, or homosexuality. John Newton wanted to do evil, and he wanted others, like Job Lewis, to approve his behavior and do the same.
Enslaved to the Sea
‘At Christmas, 1744, the HMS Harwich moored north of the straits of Dover, preparing for its next voyage.
With horror, Newton learned this would take them, not as before, to the Mediterranean for a year, but instead to the East Indies, for five long years. In that time, John was convinced, his Mary would belong to another.
Distraught, driven by passion, and unchecked any longer by scruples born of faith, Newton resolved to find some way off of this ship. When the opportunity came, on a trip to the market for provisions, he slipped away, determined to quit the navy forever.
Unfortunately, a party of dragoons (marines) he encountered the day after his escape betrayed him. He was arrested and dragged back to his ship in chains, where the captain had him stripped and flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails in front of the crew of 350. Stripped to the waist, tied to the grating, he received a flogging of one dozen lashes.
Having been disgraced before the crew, and believing he had lost Mary, John Newton contemplated suicide. Only the secret hand of God, he later claimed, kept him from killing either the captain or himself.
In the providence of God, John Newton was able to secure a transfer to another vessel, the HMS Greyhound. The ship was bound for the Guinea coast in West Africa, and thus the slave trade. The captain of the Greyhound was an alleged friend of Newton’s father. Before long Newton found himself immersed in the slave trade, working under the ship’s part-owner, a Mr. Amos Clowe, at a slave factory on the Plantain Islands near Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Sinking Lower than a Slave
However, Newton’s personal position was not improved, despite the change of circumstances in his life. As biographer Bruce Hindmarsh explains, “during the next two years [John Newton] suffered illness, starvation, exposure, and ridicule, as his master’s black mistress used him poorly, and as he lost his master’s trust.” In what was scarcely better than rank captivity to this mistress, Newton became lower than a slave, a “servant” to the human chattel in which his master traded. A few of the slaves, taking pity on him, brought food to him, and smuggled a series of desperate letters to his father onto ships bound for England.
When John Newton found himself a new master to work under in Sierra Leon, his personal fortunes improved to the point that he was set again on a course that would have led him to financial success as a future owner of his own slaving operation.
But then, in 1748, his life took another turn when a captain deputized, by his father, found John Newton. Of course Captain John wanted his son back home, and so his father’s friend felt compelled to lie, claiming Newton was to come into a handsome inheritance back home. Newton agreed to return to England.
Back on board the HMS Greyhound, carrying beeswax and dyer’s wood, Newton initially surpassed his earlier immorality and impiety, cursing to a degree that shocked even the older men. John narrowly escaped death by drowning as he fell overboard during a party.
But, it was not to last. Sin has a saturation point, and when that level is reached, God either arrests the madness of sin, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, or strikes a person dead, as in the person of Belshazzar. Because Newton was numbered among the elect, in matchless grace, God would arrest the madness of John Newton.
Just as Newton seemed irrevocably lost to the faith, he picked up, for lack of other shipboard reading material, Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, a Catholic devotional guide that had also deeply influenced John Wesley. At first, the book’s words meant little to him. But then came the first pivot point of his life’s voyage.
The Hour He First Believed
The HMS Greyhound’s voyage from Brazil to Newfoundland, laden with slaves, led them on March 21, 1748, into a violent storm. In poor repair, the ship soon began to split and take on water. Newton was awakened from sleep to find that the first crewmember had been swept away in the raging sea.
“Tied to the ship to prevent being washed away,” relates Hindmarsh, Newton “pumped and bailed all night until he was called upon to steer the ship. All the while he reviewed his life: his former professions of religion, the extraordinary twists of past events, the warnings and deliverances he had met with, his licentious conversation, and his mockery of the Gospels.”
At first Newton was convinced that he had sinned too much to have any hope for God’s forgiveness. Yet when the storm did not recede and he really felt he would soon meet his God, he at last clung to Scriptures that taught God’s grace towards sinners, and he breathed his first weak prayer in years. As he was later to recall it, this was “the hour he first believed.”
Yet Newton’s new faith would not find much progress for some months. The very next year, 1749, on a voyage as mate of the slaving ship HMS Brownlow, Newton once more gave his lust free reign. It was only when, on a visit to the place of his previous captivity, Clowe’s Plantain Island factory, when John fell ill with a violent fever, that he came to himself, and a spiritual truth is remembered. While there are many reasons for suffering, often suffering is God’s way of bringing a soul to Himself.
John had to suffer kidnapping, flogging, personal humiliation, enslavement, terrifying storms, and violent physical illness, until he came to his spiritual senses.
While recovering from his sickness, Newton believed he had “crucified the Son of God afresh, and thus had shut and locked the door of hope” (John Pollock, biographer).
And yet, maybe, just maybe, God would receive him yet. Going to a “remote corner of the island,” where, “between the palm trees and the sea he [John Newton] knelt upon the shore and found a new liberty to pray.”
After this moment of spiritual renewal, Newton never again went back on his faith. He developed a consistent habit of prayer, and his watchword became humility: “What a poor creature I am in myself, incapable of standing a single hour without continual fresh supplies of strength and grace from the fountain-head.”
A series of miraculous rescues from death by storm, starvation, mutiny plots, and slave uprisings reinforced his sense of the amazing grace of Almighty God.