John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace
By Jonathan Aitken
CBN.com The year 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in England. Viewers across America have been moved by the portrayal of parliamentarian William Wilberforce’s pivotal role in the crusade against slavery in the film Amazing Grace. The film is named for the famous hymn penned by John Newton, whose character plays a supporting role in the movie. But who was this man? How did he love and what motivated him to write this hymn?
These questions would scarcely have needed answers two hundred years ago. During his lifetime, Newton’s story, in all its infamous detail, was renowned as the most sensational, sinful, spiritual, romantic, influential, and historically important saga of the 18th century. Noted author Jonathan Aitken offers a fresh look at Newton’s transformation from slave trader to abolitionist and minister in the new biography John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Crossway Books).
The book is the first biography to draw from Newton’s unpublished diaries and correspondence, providing new insight into the life of this complex and memorable man. The result is a fascinating, colorful, and historically significant portrait of John Newton, a self-described “great sinner” redeemed through amazing grace.
Aitken recently discussed the book.
Why do you feel now is the appropriate time to offer a fresh look into the life of John Newton?
If Newton has penetrated the mass consciousness of the 21st century, it is because he is remembered as the writer of America’s most frequently performed and recorded spiritual song, “Amazing Grace.” With that exception, the average man in the street, or even in the bookstore, has hardly heard of John Newton. I began to realize how forgotten he had become in our secular age when I talked about writing his biography to a normally well-informed friend who reacted with astonishment. “But are you sure you’ll be able to handle his physics and mathematics?” he asked, confusing John with his namesake Sir Isaac Newton. It was clear to me that a reassessment of Newton’s life was needed, particularly at this time, as we recognize the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.
Many biographies of John Newton’s life already exist. What makes From Disgrace to Amazing Grace different from the others?
This is the first biography to include portions of Newton’s unpublished diaries and correspondence. The inclusion of these documents allows the reader to observe the development of Newton’s soul in his own words. Newton’s letters, diaries, and prayer journals trace his personal growth during the sixteen years of his first pastorate in Olney. They chronicle his wife Polly’s close calls with life threatening illnesses and his friend and fellow hymn writer William Cowper’s repeated suicide attempts. The diaries are also full of historically interesting material such as Newton’s support for the rebel American colonists in their war of Independence in 1776, from which he was forced to exonerate himself.
The recent film Amazing Grace, which portrays William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery, alludes to his friendship with John Newton. How important was that friendship in the context of the abolitionist movement?
I think it’s fair to say that without William Wilberforce the abolitionist campaign would not have succeeded. But without John Newton there would have been no William Wilberforce. In December 1785, Wilberforce reached a crossroads and was forced to decide between a career in the church and a career in politics. Newton recognized the potential in Wilberforce for serving God as a Parliamentarian, so the decision was made to stay in politics. After that, Newton became Wilberforce’s spiritual mentor and supporter, particularly in his crusade against slavery. The Newton-Wilberforce friendship was one of the foundations of the great victory for humanity and history which the abolitionists eventually won in 1807.
“Amazing Grace,” Newton’s most famous hymn, is the most popular spiritual song in the history of American music. Why do you think the song has been embraced by so many?
In the words of Philip Yancey, “Grace, like water, always flows downward, to the lowest place.” “Amazing Grace” clearly embodies the life of John Newton and the gratitude he felt for his redemption. The song is meaningful to anyone who has descended to the lowest places only to look upward and receive the unexpected gift of grace.
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Interview courtesy of The B&B Media Group.
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