From the book "Lead, Kindly Light" (Reproduced with kind permission of ‘This England’ magazine)
John Newton was born on 24th July, 1725, in Wapping, part of London’s bustling dockside. His father was a gruff merchant navy captain, his mother a nonconformist with a deep sense of religion and a keen desire for her son to become a preacher. Unhappily, however, she died of consumption before the lad had reached his seventh birthday… A few years at a “cane- not-brain” school crushed whatever feelings of gentleness he had inherited from his mother, and on his eleventh birthday his father abruptly ended his son’s schooling and took him to sea as a cabin boy. John became a rebellious teenager. In between voyages, spent at his stepmother’s home, his wild ways attracted the disgust and condemnation of the law-abiding locals. He was a known poacher, foul-mouth and layabout – yet he twice reverted temporarily back to religion when his riotous living led him to narrow escapes from death, reminding him of his mother’s early teaching.
At one time in his career as a seaman he suddenly found himself a member of a slave trader’s crew. Within a short time, due to his past harsh experiences and present life of callous inhumanity and debauchery, Newton became a militant atheist, or a “free-thinker” as the times euphemistically declared.
Later he was offered a position ashore with a slave master who was establishing a “factory” on a small island – a collecting point for slaves awaiting transhipment. But sickness, and then double-dealing and deceit by his employer, brought him near death’s door again. This time he was flung into the slaves’ compound and shackled by the ankles. No food was given to him and he would have surely died of starvation had it not been for the simple kindness of the unfortunate black slaves themselves. They saw his plight and took pity on him, sharing their meagre diet with the very man who had once stood over them with a whip.
Released and on his way home to England his ship was caught in the fury of a howling North Atlantic gale. Newton struggled at the hand pump desperately trying to keep the ship from going down. Many of the crew had already given up hope, preparing themselves for what seemed certain death. But Newton suddenly said something which made them stop and stare. This profligate youth, known for his licentious behaviour and blasphemous tongue, was heard to say: “Lord, have mercy on us.” It was so uncharacteristic, so unexpected from one so lewd in his habits, that even the hard-bitten sailors felt the weight of those words. It was amazing that such a man as Newton could turn to God at this, seemingly his last moments of life, and ask for the grace of forgiveness. Newton never swore again. Instead he read the New Testament while his comrades looked on with open-mouthed wonder. After a miraculous delivery, he settled down in England, got married and despite tempting offers for a worldly career, he became ordained as an Anglican priest.
Newton’s friend William Cowper began writing hymn verses and, under such expert influence, Newton reciprocated with laboured lines of his own which, although perhaps lacking the poetic purity of the renowned Cowper, nevertheless struck straight to the heart of the simple folk who flocked to take part in his joyful and tuneful services. In 1779 the well-known “Olney Hymns” were published, containing 348 items of which more than three-quarters were written by Newton and the rest by Cowper. In addition to “Amazing Grace” and “How Sweet the Name”, he also wrote “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” among many others loved the world over.
Beginning in 1785, Newton played a vital role in the 20-year fight to get an abolition measure passed through Commons and Lords. His was the only first-hand experience heard by the Privy Council Committee which met to investigate the matter fully in 1788. After his wife’s death John helped to found the Church Missionary Society, which among other things carried the Good News of the Gospels to those parts of Africa where he had once trod as a slave trader. He continued to preach from his pulpit until a few months before his death on 21st December, 1807, the same year that the Emancipation Act, abolishing slavery, became law in England.
His was truly an amazing life, full of amazing incidents… and amazing grace.