John Newton is the author of the great Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace,” but what is known about the life of the author of this beloved hymn?
John Newton was born in 1725 to a captain of a merchant ship. At 11, he had made six voyages with his father; but his father wished another life for his son. So, he secured a job for his son in Jamaica as the manager of a sugar farm. At 19, he was forced into service upon a man-of war-ship. After a short time, John decided the life of a sailor was not for him, and went AWOL. Upon recapture, he was flogged, demoted, and forced to continue to serve as a sailor.
Soon he went to work on a slave ship and became brutally abusive. In 1748, after being thrown overboard, he was rescued by a captain who knew his father. This man helped him become a captain of a slave ship. After his rescue, he converted to Christianity, but continued to work as a slave ship captain. He later wrote, “I was greatly deficient in many respects…I cannot consider myself to have been a believer (in the full sense of the word) till a considerable time afterwards.” Like most of us when we change direction in our lives, it takes a while for our actions to follow our thoughts.
In 1750, he married Mary Catlett, a woman he had loved for many years. In 1755, he became seriously ill and gave up his life on the sea. After his sickness, Newton became surveyor of tides in Liverpool, England. During this time in his life, he met many famous preachers such as George Whitefield and John Wesley. These men taught him to read and write Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. At this time, he felt called to ministry and sought ordination by the Archbishop of York, but he was refused. Later the Bishop of Lincoln ordained him and he became a pastor.
While serving as a pastor, he changed his opinion on slavery and became an abolitionist. During this time of reflection, he wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” describing himself as a “wretch” because of his support of slavery. He realized only by grace was he cleansed of his burden and former life’s work. Later, he joined William Wilberforce and wrote, “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.” They also worked to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Each of us, like John Newton, need grace from God, and often motivation for ourselves as we grow, mature, and become the people God intended us to be.