The 'Amazing Grace' of John Newton
By Rosa Lee
It is amazing how the grace of a single moment, a phrase, or a look can propel a person to stand with the outcast against the powerful, with the few against the world, with the oppressed against the profiteers.
Such power was ignited within the quiet, clandestine conversation between a man, William Wilberforce, and his mentor, John Newton. (1) Yet, who was this mentor who spurred Wilberforce to rein in the ravaging rampages of slavery?
Having spent much of his teenage years within Newton’s home, hearing his sermons and slave trading stories, it was natural for Wilberforce to seek his counsel. But what radiated from Newton’s heart and past to empower Wilberforce to recognize in parliament he held the power to abolish slavery and affect change a minister could not?
John Newton was a renowned author, prolific composer of 270 published hymns; e.g., Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, Jacob’s Ladder (2), Approach My Soul the Mercy-Seat, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken and countless unpublished hymns. (3)
He was widely recognized as a heart moving extemporaneous speaker and pastor, dedicated to serving God and spreading the good news of God’s amazing grace, mercy, and love during his years as curate of Olney and rector of St Mary Woolnoth. He had a powerful reputation as a prayer warrior. “When prayer is a burden, nothing does me good," he declared. "But as long as the door of access is kept open and duly attended I find the joy of the Lord to be my strength, and nothing is suffered to harm me.” (4)
Despite all these public accolades, Newton never lost sight of the sins he committed in the first 23 years of his life -- even unto his death. This is reflected in his self-written epitaph:
John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, preserved, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy.
He remembered not in hopeless sorrow, but in continual thanksgiving God’s saving grace and friendship, not trying to make up for his disobedience but seeking to help others experience God’s forgiveness and love, to glorify Jesus Christ, to understand the beauty of God’s full redemption and pardon.
In those early years from July, 1725 to March 10, 1748, Newton vacilated between closeness to God to wanton partying with evil, and from pious religiosity and judicial hardness of heart to complete abandonment of conscience and moral responsibility. Yet, these years fueled his remaining 60 years (he died December 31, 1807) to learn, serve, and proclaim the good news and unending restoration of God’s amazing grace.
His life began with a mother lovingly wallpapering his tender young heart with the Word of God, diligently preparing him for life. However, her death before he turned 7 cut the preparation short. His father, an absent sea captain, sent him to boarding school in Essex. At age 11, Newton was thrust body and soul into the treacherous seafaring world of his father.
Newton consumed the next 12 years spinning farther into a dark void of spiritual confusion. Sometimes he fought to extinguish others’ faith, composing and performing songs to annoy, alienate, and injure the hearts and minds of as many as possible. Other times he lived as the most devout and stringent Pharisee which left him “in many respects, under the power of sin…gloomy, stupid, unsociable, and useless.” (5)
Yet, grace and mercy glinted through the filth, wooing Newton to accept God’s love. Moments of providential grace protected him from certain death, including a spike through the head, explosions, sinking ships and more. In hindsight, he even saw God’s mercy in being abused as a slave in Africa, banished, excluded from human society, at a time when he “was big with mischief, and, like one infected with a pestilence, was capable of spreading a taint wherever [he] went.”
Finally, on March 10, 1748, Newton stopped running and finally accepted God’s amazing grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
In a storm ravaged ship he asked “what if these things are true?” Throughout four tortuous weeks, tossing between life and death, feeling like Jonah, he fought with God. Finally, he relinquished his will to the Lord, and like the prodigal son, he began his return to his Lord. He embraced the truth of Jesus Christ and the Bible, and never let go again. Newton celebrated that day annually in March.
In His amazing grace, God placed Newton in a spiritual incubator for the next 6 years to steam the filth and lies from his heart. However, Newton came to rest “in the gift, and forgot the Giver.” But on February 1st, 1750, God’s grace gave him the desires of his heart. He married Mary Catlett whom he fell in love with at first sight eight years earlier when she was 14 years old and he 15. (6) Together, they remembered the Giver and grew in Christian friendships.
Like David, Newton learned to be a man after God’s own heart and how to depend on God for “hourly supplies of wisdom, strength, and comfort.” He learned to trust God with finances, health, and his wife, and he continually sought to live as God directed. He learned that conversational prayer with God is “the gate of heaven.” (7) He treasured his times of daily prayer “to overthrow and rout my spiritual enemies, (as) the great means to procure the graces of which I stand in hourly need.” (8)
Like William Wilberforce, he often questioned whether he was hearing God correctly and living God’s way and if God was truly calling him into the ministry. He mourned his shortcomings, such as his times as captain of slave trading vessels.
Though Newton was for a time a slave trader, he was a compassionate jailor and the horror of what he did never left his heart. In An Authentic Narrative (9) he wrote, “The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that, knowing the state of this vile traffic...I did not at the time start with horror at my own employment as an agent promoting it. Custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly…I should have been overwhelmed with distress and terror, if I had known, or even suspected, that I was acting wrongly. I felt greatly the disagreeableness of the business. The office of a gaoler, [jailer] and the restraints under which I was obliged to keep my prisoners, were not suitable to my feelings; but I considered it as the line of life which God in His providence had allotted me, and as a cross which I ought to bear with patience and thankfulness till He should be pleased to deliver me from it. Till then I only thought myself bound to treat the slaves under my care with gentleness, and to consult their ease and convenience so far as was consistent with the safety of the whole family of whites and blacks on board my ship.” (10)
I’m sure these thoughts were in his mind when Wilberforce approached him in 1765 for spiritual guidance whether to stay in parliament or to become a minister. Likening Wilberforce’s position in Parliament to Daniel’s influence in Babylon with Nebuchadnezzar, Newton encouraged Wilberforce to allow God to use him to publicly change this horrific trade, and to fight against the public opinion of politically and economically perceived potential injuries to profit.
Wilberforce and Newton shared more than a conversation; they shared heart knowledge of time spent running from God looking for freedom and happiness in evil places. Yet, both came to understand that true freedom and joy lie within the immensity of God’s unending love and grace. They considered themselves unfit for God to use, yet surrendered their lives to His plan, to be used in the manner that God preferred. Together, with God, they fought and succeeded in abolishing slavery in Britain and beyond. (11)
Later, in 1792 they joined again, when Wilberforce “renewed his motion in the House of Commons for the abolition of the slave trade.” (12) Newton considered himself morally bound to testify and fight to abolish slavery. He also published Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, highlighting “its fearful political and moral evils…its injury alike to the slaves and those who traffic in them”….Publicly confessing, yet unable to undo “the misery and mischief” he caused. He declared, “The slave trade was always unjustifiable; but inattention and interest prevented for a time the evil from being perceived” yet “undeniable evidence” calls for the universal “suppression of this trade.” (13)
Professionally, the majority of Newton’s life was split between being Curate of Olney (1764-1780) and Rector of St Mary Woolnoth (1780-1807) as well as continually writing, publishing, and composing. The majority of his hymns, composed and published alone or with Rev. John Cowper occurred at Olney. However, these positions were simply offices he held, not who he was nor tell of his heart. Being a humble, unassuming man, we must look elsewhere to know his character and heart.
Those who knew John Newton, his contemporaries, mentors, friends, protégées, family, and readers, saw him as a strong-minded, diligent, and trustworthy man with a tender, compassionate, and self-denying heart. They tell how “the law of love was in his heart and the language of it on his lips” that he “literally wept with those who wept, and rejoiced with them that rejoiced.” (14) He was a practically moral, non-judgmental, persistent, and frank guide, friend, and mentor. From the pulpit or face-to-face, Newton conversed directly and truthfully in compassionate sympathy and empathy with all. His good natured, lively, yet at times droll humor taught and disarmed. Always the true friend, he spoke honestly and lovingly from the heart and never ran from guiding a friend away from destruction and back to God’s grace.
He fervently embraced life and zealously committed to stand in his beliefs. He willingly discarded old beliefs when proven faulty (15). For Newton knew that “zeal without knowledge is like expedition to a man in the dark.” (16) Thus, whether pastor, preacher, composer, author, or friend, he humbly saw it “his privilege and duty” to “do good to all” and to be useful to God.
Faith, love, and a spirit of steadfast prayer continually renewed his strength and fulfilled his most earnest desire to glorify God and lead others to know of His amazing grace. This is the loving grace that saves, protects, and leads, that teaches hearts to fear yet relieves all fears and brings us home through many dangers, toils and snares. It is the sweet, sweet sound of amazing grace that secures our hope and shields our hearts within God’s redemptive Word that gives sight to blinded eyes and sets spirits free to sing for all eternity!
CBN.com's Amazing Grace Special Section
Real Christianity: An Introduction by Dr. Bob Beltz
Real Christianity: The Original Introduction by William Wilberforce
Real Christianity, Chapter 2: Current Ideas About the Nature of Man
Amazing Grace Official Movie Site
1. Piper, J. (2006). Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. Wheaton IL: Crossway Books.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Newton#Writer_and_hymnist and http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/hymns/olney.html
4. Bull, J. (1868). But Now I See: The life of John Newton. (e-book edition). Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth. Pg 92
6. www.anointedlinks.com/amazing_grace.html and (Bull, 1868)
7. Bull, J. (1868) pg 118
8. Bull, J. (1868). But Now I See: The life of John Newton. (e-book ed.). Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth. Pg 92
9. Published 1764
10. Bull, J. (1868) and Letters to a Wife, vol. i. p. 158,
11. Piper, (2006)
12. Bull, J. (1868) pg 61
13. Bull, J. (1868) pg 62 and (Piper, 2006)
14. Bull, J. (1868). But Now I See: The life of John Newton. (e-book ed.). Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth.
Rosa Lee is a passionate author, speaker, and teacher dedicated to sharing the good news of God’s unending love that moves us from worthlessness into pricelessness. Rosa is a graduate of CLASS (Christian Leaders, Authors, and Speakers Services) and Glorietta Christian Writers Conference Get Published Now. She is a Certified Toastmaster and Competent Leader, and a member of the Cambridge registry. You can contact Rosa Lee at email@example.com.
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