Grace is not amazing until it is recognized to be unmerited and undeserved. Such is the tale of Christianity’s athem, “Amazing Grace.” Until a vocalist recognizes the sinfulness of his own soul and the outpouring of love from Calvary’s cross, he may sing the melody of this great tune but never understands the song.
Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, who was born in London in 1725. His mother was a faithful Puritan who taught him the Bible, and his father was a sea-captain. Dying two weeks before his seventh birthday, the death of Newton’s mother left a permanent hole in his heart, and at the age of eleven Newton would begin to sail the Atlantic waters in the slave shipping business. He said later of his father, “I am persuaded that he loved me but he seemed not willing that I should know it.”
Following in his father footsteps, he became a slave trader and ship captain at the age of 17. During these days, the godly influence of his mother had all but receded. He took up smoking and swearing, and indulged his lusts at every journey’s end. He became an outspoken atheist and libertine, even attempting to ravage the faith of believers he met in his journeys.
At 18, John was captured and “pressed” into the service of the Royal Navy. He became a midshipman, yet was flogged for trying to liberate himself. Disgraced and contemplating suicide, he continually proved to be more trouble than his worth.
He was left ashore in West Africa, becoming the servant of slaves. Given as a present to his servant’s mistress, he was savagely abused. During the next two years Newton suffered illness, starvation, exposure, and ridicule. Slaves would smuggle food items to him, as well as letters Newton wrote to his father describing his dire situation.
Lost, lonely, and disgraced…Newton needed something amazing to take place!
In 1747, Newton found himself aboard the Greyhound, a slave-laden ship traveling from Brazil to Newfoundland. During this time Newton surpassed his earlier immorality and impiety, blaspheming to a degree that shocked even the older men. He fell overboard in a drunken stupor, narrowly escaping death.
Awakened from sleep on the 21st of March, 1748, the Greyhound had sailed into a violent storm, splitting and taking on water.
“Tied to the ship to prevent being washed away, Newton pumped and bailed all night until he was called upon to steer the ship. All the while he reviewed his life: his former professions of religion, the extraordinary twists of past events, the warnings and deliverances he had met with, his licentious conversation, and his mockery of the Gospels.” It was then that he recalled his mother’s words from Solomon’s Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.”
Amazingly, he converted during the storm, though he admitted later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.” As he was later to recall it, this was “the hour he first believed.”
Newton had endured many “dangers, toils, and snares,” and it was not long before Newton had fallen back into the old sins, coming to realize that “grace had brought him safe thus far and grace would lead him home.” He would need new grace to come to full assurance of salvation and progress in his sanctification.
It was aboard the slave ship Brownlow in 1750 that Newton, who was extremely ill, acknowledged his faith in Christ, suggesting that his fear of death aboard the Greyhound led to his desire to make peace with God.
Operating the slave ships Duke of the Argyle and the African, he was not well like by his crewmen. Falling overboard, the crew took a whale harpoon and struck him in the leg. Like Jacob of old, he would limp the rest of his life. Additionally, he suffered a stroke at the age of 29 and his slave trading days were over.
In his later years, Newton became an outspoken voice against slavery. His “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” were written in 1788 and became a great tributary to the river of abolition. The Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, the year of Newton’s death.
His life, however, served more than to only free physically slaves. Now, more than ever, he desired to preach the gospel and free those enslaved spiritually. He would later be called “Little Whitfield,” a name given him because of his shadowing of the great evangelist.
Studying Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, Newton became a lay minister and applied for priesthood in the Church of England at the age of thirty-two but was rejected. His life would once again imitate biblical narrative. Few trusted Newton or wanted his fellowship in light of his profligate past. Methodists, Dissenters, and Presbyterians alike would not accept his story of conversion. Grace, however, prevailed.
By the age of 39 Newton was serving at Olney, England as a pastor. In his parish Newton did not become known as a fiery preacher. Rather, “he became aware that his greatest gift to the church would emerge out of the time he spent alone, next to a fire, with single pages of blank paper, his pen in hand, his black ink close, as he sat and wrote pastoral letters.”
His writing, however, would not be confined to the confidential. During his time with William Cowper in Olney, England, Newton and Cowper wrote universally-known hymns such as Amazing Grace, There is a Fountain, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, and many more.
Newton would recollect at the end of his life, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
Dying at the age of 82, Newton’s tombstone reads, “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, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”
Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come,
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.