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John Newton (1725 – 1807)


John Newton

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1725 – 1807

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.

Are you ever startled, even awed, that someone loves you unspeakably? When spouse, or friend, or parent, or child loves you beyond anything you deserve, anything you could expect, even beyond any love you will ever be able to return? John Newton was awed to the point of writing “Amazing Grace,” the hymn by which he is known and from which the two lines above are quoted.

When Newton was nineteen years old a press gang “captured” him, as they did may young men, and forced him to serve in the Royal Navy. Living conditions on warships were deplorable. There was less room than in a prison, the company was worse, the food worse, and there was always the prospect of terrible suffering through enemy fire, as well as the constant danger of drowning. Most of the food was slightly rotten, flavoured with bitter tasting insects called weevils. Very rotten food festered with black-headed maggots.

During one seven-year period in the 1700s the Royal Navy raised 185,000 men for sea duty. Two-thirds of them died of disease. Many succumbed to malnutrition, and more than a few to syphilis. Sailors were regarded as the scum of the earth. Newton boasted of a vileness and moral degeneracy so pronounced that even hardened sailors preferred to leave him alone.

Annoyed by the incorrigible troublemaker, the warship’s captain eventually had him lashed until the young sailor fell into a coma. Vinegar, salt water and alcohol were poured into his wounds. He nearly died. Wanting only to be rid of him, the captain put Newton on board a merchant ship involved in the slave trade.

By age twenty-five Newton was captain of a slave ship. The vessel’s round trip took slightly more than a year: from England to Africa with trade goods plus chains, neck-collars, handcuffs and thumb-screws; from Africa to the Caribbean with slaves; finally, from the Caribbean to England with molasses and rum. The inhumanity of the long middle passage still haunts the world. Black people on board were forced into pens only two feet high. They were stacked together like cordwood and chained to one another. There were no toilet facilities and no ventilation. So overpowering was the stench that a slave ship could be smelled twenty miles downwind. Sailors raped black women at will. Newton later wrote of his exploitation here, “I was sunk into complacency with the vilest of wretches.”

Several years before becoming a captain, Newton had been caught in a fierce storm off Newfoundland. The crew pumped water until they collapsed. The ship barely staggered into port. For the first time Newton wondered where his life was going. He prayed. Six years, including his slave-trading days, were to pass before the seed sown during the storm was to bear fruit. But bear fruit it did. That grace before which believers are speechless in silent amazement “saved the wretch.” Newton applied for the Anglican ministry but was at first rejected because he lacked a university degree. Eventually a discerning bishop agreed to ordain him. He was thirty-nine years old.

Although Newton was a clumsy preacher, people flocked to him. They knew they were face-to-face with a man who was utterly transparent to the grace and power and purpose of God. Soon he was devoting most of his time to earnest people who sought Christian counsel. (You can read his wise advice in the little book, Letters of John Newton) Aware now of both the surge of God’s power and the throb of the needy human heart, Newton began writing hymns, often one per week, (The hymn he penned to commemorate his wife on the first anniversary of her death had twenty-six stanzas!)

Newton knew that there are no limits to human degradation, not merely because of Paul’s insistence in Romans 1 that God “gives up” those who reject him to the consequences of not wanting him, but also because his days as sailor and slave-ship captain had acquainted him with such degradation in himself and others. Gloriously he also knew that there are no limits to God’s renewal in righteousness. His entire ministry – preaching, writing, counselling – echoed the note of the great sinner who has come to know a greater Saviour. Never naïve concerning sin, he often expressed to William Cowper (another famous hymnwriter) his sorrow at the curse of slavery he had helped unleash on the world, and as often waited to hear Cowper’s pronouncement of pardon. When a parishioner spluttered her delight at having won the British lottery, Newton replied solemnly, “I shall pray for you as one under affliction.”

In his latter years, his memory began to fail. When the sermon meandered and appeared to have lost its way the congregation patiently reminded its pastor of the point he had been trying to make. A friend suggested he preach no longer. “What, shall the old blasphemer stop while he can speak?” Newton roared back, as though raising his voice over the din of an ocean storm. He preached his final sermon in 1806 at a benefit service for the widows and orphans of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Shortly after came the day when he could speak no longer. He had anticipated it in the last stanza of another of his much-loved hymns, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”:

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath;
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death.