Godly Saints From The Past: A Look Into The Lives Of Forgotten Saints In Christian History (John Newton 1725-1807)

“Author of Amazing Grace Hymn”

          John Newton was born on July 24, 1725 in London in Wapping London the only son of John Newton Sr. and Elizabeth Newton. His father was a shipmaster in the Mediterranean waters and was a very irreligious man. John would say of his father “I am persuaded he loved me, but he seemed not willing that I should know it. I was with him in a state of fear and bondage. His sternness broke and overawed my spirit.” His mother, on the other hand,  was a very Godly woman and taught John the Westminster Catechism and the hymn of Isaac Watts. She taught of of Godly principles and raised him in the scriptures until her death in July of 1732 of tuberculosis. John was about two weeks away from his seventh birthday when his mother had died. Two years later when John was nine he went to live with his father’s new wife, in Aveley, a suburb of London. It was there that he spent at least two years in a boarding school. In 1736 when John was 11 years old he took to sea with his father, and would take six voyages with him before his father retired from the sea in 1742. His father would end up drowning in 1751 in the Hudson Bay. In 1742 he would meet a young 13 year old girl named Mary Catlett and fell in love with her, and spent the next 7 years of his life traveling the seas but constantly thinking about her. In 1743 when John was 18 years old he was pressed into naval service against his own desires and will and set sail on Harwich as midshipman by his father’s influence. Richard Cecil, one of John’s biographers wrote of John at this time saying “The companions he met with here completed the ruin of his principles.” John would say of himself at this time “I was capable of anything; I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor the least sensibility of conscience. My love for Mary was now the only restraint I had left.” John despised being on the shop as a midshipmen that on one of his visits home he deserted the ship only to be caught and punished severely for his actions. John said of his desertion that he was “confined two days in the guard-house,…kept a while in irons… publicly stripped and whipt, degraded from his office.” Newton was said to have been punished in front of 350 crewmen, stripped down to his waist and received one dozen lashes. After this event John had at one point contemplated suicide and it took him a while to recover physically and mentally.

         In 1746 while the Harwich ship was on its way to India, he was transferred, by his own request unto another ship called the Pegasus. This ship was one that carried goods to Africa and traded them for slaves to England and other countries.The ship ended up landing on a small island southeast of Sierra Leone, West Africa. John proved to be a problem to the crew on the Pegasus and they decided to leave John in the hands of a slave trader named Amos Clowe. Amos ended up taking John to the coast and gave him to his wife Princess Peye, an African duchess. It was here that John for a year and a half he lived there as a slave in complete destitute situations. Princess Peye had a great disdain for John and she treated him very harshly. So bad that even the other African slaves that Princess Peye had, would have to smuggle food for him from their own small rations. Early in 1947 in a providential act of God, a ship after seeing some smoke from the his island where John was enslaved at, landed on the island. It just so happened to be that the ship with a captain who knew John’s father, and was on a search mission to find him. As a result in February of 1947 God sovereignly rescued John from his bondge of slavery, at this time John was 21 years old.

        The ship that rescued John was a merchant ship called the Greyhound, and carried beeswax and dyer’s wood on it. The ship had business to attend to upon the sea for about a year before it would sail back to England and thereby it would be another year before John would return home. However, as the ship made it’s route eventually back to England it would be then on March 21, 1749 that God would begin to change this life of this sinner. On that day the ship encountered a severe storm and almost caused the ship to sink. John woke up in the middle of the night only to find the shop filling with water very quickly. As he ran for the deck the captain stopped him and asked for him to go and fetch a knife. The man who went up on deck in the place of John was immediately washed overboard to be drowned at sea, and he was assigned to the pumps. As he was at the pumps John said to himself, something that he had not said in years since childhood, “..Lord have mercy upon us.” He continued at those pumps from three in the morning until noon, and then slept for an hour only to take to steering the ship until midnight. As he was at the wheel steering he had some time to reflect upon his life and spiritual condition.  He was shocked at the fact he called out to God, in whom he had been living contrary to for so many years. He believed that God used the storm as a means to begin a work of grace upon his heart. John said of this time of reflection that “I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favor. I began to pray; I could not utter the prayer of faith, I could not draw near to a reconciled God, and call him Father..the comfortless principles of infidelity were deeply riveted.. The great question now was, how to obtain faith.”

        After they got through the storm and the ship was heading back to England, John found a Bible on board and a book by Thomas Kempis called “The Imitation Of Christ” and he began to read them. One particular passage struck his heart that found in Luke 11:13 in which Jesus promises that God will give the Holy Spirit to show who ask him. As result of this passage is produced great hope and comfort to Newton, for he himself stating “If this book be true, the promise in this passage must be true likewise. I have need of that very Spirit, by which the whole was written, in order to understand it alright. He has engaged here to give that Spirit to those who ask: I must therefore pray for it; and, if it be of God, he will make good on his own word.” On April 8 John describes that they had to anchor in Ireland due to a dangerous storm coming upon the sea. He says that sometime before making it to Ireland that God had done a supernatural work of grace upon his heart to make him a new man saying, “Thus far the Lord had wrought a marvelous thing; I was no longer an infidel. I heartily renounced my former profaneness, and had taken up some right notions; was seriously disposed, and sincerely touched with a sense of the undeserved mercy I had received, in being brought safe through so many dangers. I was sorry of my past misspent life, and purposed an immediate reformation. I was quite freed from the habit of swearing, which seemed to have been as deeply rooted in me as second nature. Thus, to all appearance, I was a new man.” John would later say of that date that is was a day when God rescued the “African Blasphemer.” So impactful was this day for John that 57 years later in 1805 when he was 80 years old, in his diary, “March 21, 1805. Not well able to write. But I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer, and praise.”

        Although there was a major work that happened upon his heart in 1749, and there was changes that took place in his heart, it will still be several years before he would give up some of his ingrained sinful patterns. When John was converted to Christ he said the had no “Christian friend or faithful minister to advise me.” As a result of his immaturity of the time, John would look back on life and say of that day in 1749 “I acknowledged the Lord’s mercy in pardoning what was past, but depended chiefly upon my own resolution to do better for the time to come.. I cannot consider myself to have been a believer till a considerable time afterwards.” John took to sea again in December of 1749 as captain of a slave trading ship, but he began to treat slaves with a considerable amount of freedom. In time as he matured in Christ eventually gave up and came to see as a detestable practice, and gave it up completely. In fact in an essay he wrote called ‘Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade’  he wrote of the African slave trade, “.. a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, do destructive, as the African Slave Trade!”

        On February 1, 1750 John Married the woman he loved for so long Mary Catlett, and after he marriage he went on another 3 long voyages that would leave Mary alone up to 10-13 months at a time. However in November of 1754 he suffered an epileptic seizure and after that John would never sail the seas again. When John left the sea he returned to Liverpool, England and became a tide surveyor or what could be called a tax collector from 1755-1760. In his spare time he began to study Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian so that he could understand the Bible in its original languages. It was during this time that he also befriended two of the greatest preachers and evangelists of the 18th century named George Whitfield and John Wesley. He began to become known a powerful evangelical lay minister and in 1757 he felt the call of God to become a pastor. He first applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination as a priest, but he was rejected, and it would be another 7 years before he would actually be accepted and ordained as gospel minister. On April 29, 1764 under the influential recommendation of Thomas Haweis he was received orders by the Bishop of Lincoln to to serve as priest in Olney, Buckinghamshire. His preaching was so powerful and influential that they church had to have a gallery added to accommodate the number of crowds that came to hear his speak. He would spend 16 years in Olney and became known for his powerful preaching and for his pastoral care of his flock.

         In 1770 Newton was invited to become the pastor of St. Mary Woolnoth, in Lombard Street London, where he would pastor till the day of his death. One of the most powerful works that John ever wrote was a pamphlet entitled “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” This was a pamphlet that he wrote in 1788, 34 years after he left the slave trade documenting the horrors of  the slave trade. He wrote in the pamphlet “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”John kept extensive journals and wrote many letters in his life and many historians credit his letters and journals as to what is known today about the 18th century slave trade. During his time as pastor at St. Mary Woolnoth, there were many would come to visit with John Newton seeking his advice and his wisdom. Of all those that came to see him perhaps there was none that he impacted more than a man named William Wilberforce. William was a leader in British Parliament who was an advocate to end the slave trade. William was finding it hard in politics to make a move on ending the slave trade and he wanted to give up and get out of politics and go to the ministry. When he met with Newton about what to do, Newton encouraged him to stay in the Parliament and telling him to “..serve God where he was.” John eventually joined Wilberforce in the efforts to end the slave trading in Britain. Although it took several years it paid off as the slave trade was finally abolished in February 1807.

       In 1767 a maned named William Cowper moved to Olney were John was pastor at, and they became close friends. William was prone to major bouts of depression and often left him paralyzing, and yet John allowed William to live with him and care for him through his depression. William was a renowned poet, and he collaborated with John in writing of hymns. Cowper helped John with his church services and not only had weekly Sunday services but also had weekly prayer meetings, in which their goal was to write a new hymn for each prayer meeting. These hymns which were compiled together  volume called Olney Hymns in 1779. Of all the hymns that were composed none stood taller than the hymn originally entitled “Faith’s Review and Expectation” which came to be know as Amazing Grace. It was out of the backdrop of John Newton’s life and what God has saved him from by his divine grace, that John Newton penned the words to that hymn. They hymn reflects upon the life that John once lived as the captain of a slave trading ship. In which he would have seen 20% of those slaves die and that he himself was very cruel with and had put to death. He would have remembered the times of throwing slaves and their children overboard because they were sick with smallpox or dysentery. He would have remembered seeing the brokenness of seeing slaves taken from their families in exchanged for liquor, clothes, weapons, etc. only to be taken a world they never knew and never to return. He would have remembered seeing the 600 slaves that were shackled under the deck of his ship with their odor of sweat and feces filling the air. He would have remembered the times he would chain and screw lock slaves to prevent suicide and revolt.

       John Newton wrote Amazing Grace out of the overflow of this heart from the wretched live he had once lived, that God in his grace had saved him from.  The amazing grace of God spared John from the wretched man he used to be and by his own words in looking at his years at sea “I sinned with a high hand and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” At 82 years old John said  “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” Although sailors were not known for their righteous manners, John Newton had a reputation for profanity, debauchery, and vileness that even shocked many of the sailor that he was on board with. John Newton preached till his dying day, and once in 1805 although blind was told he needed to stop preaching to which he responded “What! Shall the old blasphemer stop be he can still speak!”

       John Newton wrote his own epitaph stating “I earnestly desire that no other monument, and no inscription but to this import may be attempted for me.” Not to long after the once slave trading wretch turned preacher went to be with Christ on December 2, 1807. On his epitaph upon which he wrote are the words “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, preserve, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy.” John Newton live a life of gratitude for the amazing grace that was sown him and his life reflected it in the over 40 years of ministry that God gave him. Newton said in response to the grace show him age 72 that  “such a wretch should not only be spared and pardoned, but reserved to the honor of preaching thy Gospel, which he had blaspheme and renounced..this is wonderful indeed! The more thous hast exalted me, the more I ought to abase myself.” John Newton would have never known how powerful of impact his hymn would have in the years following. It has been estimated that the song Amazing Grace is sung nearly 10 million time annually and that through the years has appeared on over 11,000 albums. Of his life and the grace that was shown to him John said “If I ever reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there first, to meet some I had not thought to see there second, to miss some I had expected to see there and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there.”


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