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Amazing Grace in John Newton

By Rusty Wright, Founder of Rusty Wright Communications
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Are you familiar with the classic song, Amazing Grace? Do you know its songwriter's inspiring story? Maybe like I did, you think you know the real story but you don't.

John Newton was an eighteenth century British slave trader who had a dramatic faith experience during a storm at sea. He gave his life to God, left the slave trade, and became a pastor. "Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound)," Newton wrote, "That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see." 1 He played a significant role in the movement to abolish the slave trade.

Newton's song and story have inspired millions. Amazing Grace is loved the world over. It's been played at countless funerals, civil rights events, and churches. Judy Collins' recording even hit pop music charts.

Jonathan Aitken's biography, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace2, provides revealing insights into his life. Newton only became a slave-ship captain after he came to faith. And he left the slave trade not from spiritual convictions but for health reasons. Puzzling? Consider "the rest of the story."

Lost and Found

John Newton was the prototypical "bad boy." Flogged and demoted by the Navy for desertion, he became depressed, considered suicide, and thought of murdering his captain. Traded to work on a slave ship, Newton recalled, "I was exceedingly wretched. I not only sinned with a high hand myself, but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion."3

One day on another ship, Newton was casually reading an edition of Thomas à Kempis' famous book, On the Imitation of Christ. He wondered, "What if these things were true?" Dismayed, he "shut the book quickly." Newton called himself a terrible "blasphemer" who had rejected God completely.4 But then, as Forrest Gump might say, God showed up.

That night, a violent storm flooded the ship with water. Fearing for his life, Newton surprised himself by uttering, "The Lord have mercy on us!" Spending long hours at the ship's helm, he reflected on his life and rejection of God. At first, he thought his shortcomings too great to be forgiven. Then, he said, "I began to think of Jesus whom I had so often derided of His life and of His death for sins not His own, but for those who in their distress should put their trust in Him." 5

In coming days, the New Testament story of the prodigal son6 particularly impressed him. He became convinced of the truth of Jesus' message and his own need for it. "I was no longer an atheist," he writes. "I was sincerely touched with a sense of undeserved mercy in being brought safe through so many dangers. I was a new man." 7

From Slave-Ship Captain to Pastor

After his dramatic experience at sea, Newton prayed and spoke outwardly of his commitment. But his faith and behavior would take many twists on the road toward maturity.

Newton set sail again on a slave ship, seeing no conflict between slaving and his new beliefs. Later he led three voyages as a slave-ship captain. He studied the Bible. He held Sunday Christian meetings for his crew on board ship.

Church services on a slave ship? Newton, like many of his contemporaries, was still a work-in-progress. Slavery was generally accepted in his world as a pillar of British economy; few yet spoke against it. Aitken observes that in 1751, Newton's spiritual conscience "was at least twenty years away from waking up to the realization that the Christian gospel and human slavery were irreconcilable." 8

Two days before his fourth slave-trading voyage as ship's captain, a mysterious illness temporarily paralyzed Newton. His doctors advised against sailing. Out of the slave trade, Newton became a prominent public official in Liverpool. He attended Christian meetings and grew in his faith. Eventually, he become an ordained minister and would significantly impact a young Member of Parliament who would help rescue an oppressed people and a nation's character.

Faith in Action

When William Wilberforce was a rising political star, conversations with a Cambridge professor helped lead him to God. He considered leaving Parliament and entering the ministry. In 1785, he sought the advice of his childhood pastor, Newton, who advised him not to leave politics. Newton's advice proved pivotal. He became Wilberforce's mentor.

Perhaps you've seen the film Amazing Grace that portrays Wilberforce's arduous twenty-year parliamentary struggle to outlaw the slave trade. Wilberforce sometimes considered giving up. Newton encouraged him to persist.

Newton became active in the abolition movement. In 1788, he published a widely circulated pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. "I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me," he wrote, "that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." 9 He testified before important parliamentary committees. Newton described chains, overcrowded quarters, separated families, sexual exploitation, flogging, beating, butchering. The Christian slave-ship captain who once was blind to his own moral hypocrisy now could see. Aitken says, "Newton's testimony was of vital importance in converting public opinion to the abolitionist cause." 10

In early 1807, Britain finally outlawed the slave trade. On December 21, grace led John Newton home to his Maker.

Lessons from a Life of Amazing Grace

John Newton encountered "many dangers, toils, and snares" on his life's voyage. Consider some lessons from his story.

Moral maturation can take time. Newton the morally corrupt slave trader embraced faith, then continued slave trading. Only years later did his moral and spiritual conscience catch up on this issue with Jesus' high principles. We should hold hypocrites accountable, but realize that blinders don't always come off quickly. One bumper sticker I like reads, "Please be patient; God is not finished with me yet."

Humility helps. Newton learned to recognize his shortcomings. Near the end of his life, he told a visitor, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior." 11

Have you ever considered writing your own epitaph? What will it say? Here's what Newton wrote for his epitaph. It's inscribed on his tomb: "John Newton. Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy. . . ." 12

Would you like to have God as your friend, as John Newton and William Wilberforce did? Jesus said, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."13 Perhaps you'll want to say something like this to Him:

Jesus, thanks for dying and rising again for me. I ask you to forgive me, enter my life and give me eternal life. Help me to become your close friend.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer with who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

This article first appeared in Answer magazine 15:1, January/February 2008. Copyright 2008 by Rusty Wright. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1From Olney Hymns, 1779; in John Newton, Out of the Depths, Revised and Updated for Todays Readers by Dennis R. Hillman (Grand Rapids: Kregel 2003), 9.
2 Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).
3 Newton, op. cit., 44-45.
4Ibid., 69, 65, 68.
5Ibid., 71, 75.
6Luke 15.
7Newton, op. cit., 82-83.
8Aitken, op. cit., 112.
9Ibid., 319.
11Ibid., 347.
12Ibid., 350, 356.
13John 3:16 NLT.


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