The amazingly graced life of John Newton


I’m thankful for the 2 1/2 years Christianity Today International trusted me to edit what was one of its finest magazines: Christian History & Biography. Every issue was fascinating to research, write, edit, and publish, but Issue #81: John Newton–Author of “Amazing Grace,” is one of my favorites. I got to work with the author of the definitive critical biography of Newton, my friend Bruce Hindmarsh of Regent College, and to learn so much about biographical writing by reading John Pollock’s short biography of Newton–on which I based much of the lead biographical article for that issue. That article became the writing sample I sent to Intervarsity Press to pitch my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns, which has since been published. Thank you, Bruce, John Pollock, and John Newton! Here is that article.

(Though Christian History & Biography is now no longer appearing in printed form, every article from each of its 99 issues is available at www.christianhistory.net, along with new articles still being released in online-only form, plus the ongoing blog at blog.christianhistory.net, where I post each month along with CT editor David Neff, CT writer Collin Hansen, former CHB managing editor Elesha Coffman, and CT online editor Ted Olsen.)

The Amazingly Graced Life of John Newton
His was a tale of two lives, with God at the pivot point.

The “old African blasphemer.” This was how John Newton (1725-1807) often referred to himself in later life. Such a self-characterization may seem like false humility. After all, by 1800 no evangelical clergyman had gained more fame or exercised more spiritual influence than Newton. He was loved and trusted by thousands; he preached in one of the most prestigious parishes of London; young ministers competed to stay with him and learn under the master. But Newton knew well the darkness at the heart of every person.

A fair beginning

Newton was born in London, an only child, in 1725. His mother, a pious Dissenter, taught him to read Scripture and memorize Reformed catechisms and hymns. Together they attended an Independent (Congregational) church in London, at a time when barely 1 percent of that city’s population went to churches associated with that Puritan-derived group.

At age 7, however, Newton’s mother died, and he fell under the less religious and more distant care of his sea-captain father. From age 11 to 17 John accompanied his father on five sea voyages that proved a stern and thorough education in seamanship. In the long interims between these trips, he was allowed by his stepmother to run free, and he got himself into ample adolescent trouble.

Though he fell repeatedly into temptation, he always rose again, resolved to live the life his mother had shown him.

On each of these occasions, he turned for a time to such Christian disciplines as prayer, pious reading, and the keeping of spiritual diaries. In all of these activities, he later remembered, his chief aim was not to please God but to escape damnation.

The lure of fortune

In 1742, soon after John’s father retired from the sea and took a shore job with the Royal Africa Company, he announced the good news that John would soon make his fortune. Captain Newton had arranged for his son to go to Jamaica with a Liverpool ship-owner who had interests in slaves and sugar, there to act as a slave overseer. From this humble beginning the rise to a planter’s estate would not be far—in the fond father’s estimation—and from there, a seat in Parliament.

His father’s dreams for John hit a snag, however, when the impulsive 17-year-old sailor met Mary Catlett, the daughter of family friends, at the Catletts’ substantial estate in Kent. John not only fell hopelessly in love with Mary, but decided on the spot to miss his ship to Jamaica in order to stay and woo her.

When John returned home, weeks after the Jamaica-bound ship had left, his father resolved that his son would learn discipline. So he sent him on a months-long voyage as a common sailor, without his own paternal protection from the harshness of the seaman’s life.

In the company of the rough crew, Newton soon lost the last of his former religious resolve. He took up smoking and swearing, and indulged his lusts at the journey’s destination—Venice.

The God he had learned to worship at his mother’s knee seemed a distant being with no claim on his life.

His “precious”

On the way back from Venice, Newton dreamed that he was pacing on deck when a stranger gave him a valuable ring, cautioning him to guard it well, for it was the key to all happiness. Newton slipped on the ring but soon faced another stranger, who ridiculed his faith in the trinket.

As he listened to this second man’s persuasive words, the young sailor became embarrassed and pulled off the ring and dropped it overboard. The instant he had done so, the tempter told him he had in fact cast away God’s mercy, and must now be consigned to fire.

Terrorized, Newton awaited his fate. But another stranger—or perhaps the first—came and recovered the ring for him. But the stranger would not give it back, saying he must now keep it in trust, for the young man was still too foolish to have it.

For a few weeks after the dream, Newton was shaken enough to separate himself from the rough and tumble of the other sailors and resume something of his earlier religious observance. But by landfall, in December 1743, he had once again put such disciplines aside.

Hard-pressed and broken

In the following months Newton missed a second voyage—on which he would have been an officer—again by overstaying a visit to Mary. Then on March 1, 1744, John was traveling to see Mary when his life took an unexpected turn. With the unmistakable gait of a sailor but no papers as a legitimate merchantman, Newton fell prey to a naval press-gang.

Within days, despite his father’s intervention, he found himself a lowly crewman aboard a man-o’-war of the Royal Navy, the Harwich. From the first, he was driven, half-starved, and “broken” from dawn till night. In short, he was treated as were all young men in the eighteenth-century navy, for such severe discipline seemed the only way young sailors could be prepared for the extreme hardships and dangers of life in England’s floating military.

Bad as were the physical privations aboard this ship, the voyage’s effect on Newton’s spirit was worse. The captain’s clerk, a man named Mitchell, was a free-thinker only too happy to share his convictions with a young friend. Life, said Mitchell, was for the taking. God was a phantom invented by killjoy religious types. We must eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die and pass into extinction.

Newton had long desired to escape the constraints of his mother’s religion. Now, under Mitchell’s influence, he took the precious ring of his dream from his finger and threw it overboard.

Enjoying the heady release of his new creed, Newton struck up a friendship with a younger man, midshipman Job Lewis, who still clung to enough religion to keep him steady against the low morals of the crew at large. Newton was a clever and persuasive speaker and a forceful personality, and he had soon driven from young Lewis the last of his compunctions.

Just deserts

At Christmas, 1744, the Harwich moored north of the straits of Dover, preparing for its next voyage. With horror, Newton learned this would take them not, as before, to the Mediterranean for a year, but instead to the East Indies, for five long years. In that time, John was convinced, his Mary would belong to another.

Distraught, driven by passion, and unchecked any longer by scruples born of faith, Newton resolved to find some way off of this ship. When the opportunity came, on a trip to the market for provisions, he slipped away, determined to quit the navy forever.

Unfortunately, a party of marines he encountered the day after his escape had other ideas. He was arrested and dragged back to his ship in chains, where the captain had him stripped and flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails.

Newton now faced the universal scorn of the crew, five years of misery, and the near-certain loss of Mary. Only the secret hand of God, he later claimed, kept him from killing either the captain or himself.

By a remarkable coincidence, however, Newton was soon able to secure a transfer to another vessel—the Greyhound—bound for the Guinea coast and the slave trade. The captain of this vessel was a friend of his father’s, and before long Newton found himself well-established in the trade, working under the ship’s part-owner, a Mr. Clow, at a slave “factory” on the Plantain Islands near Sierra Leone.

Servant to the slaves

The arrangement proved disastrous. As biographer Bruce Hindmarsh tells it, “during the next two years [Newton] suffered illness, starvation, exposure, and ridicule as his master’s black mistress used him poorly, and as he lost his master’s trust.” In what was scarcely better than rank captivity to this mistress, Newton became lower than a slave, a “servant” to the human chattel in which his master traded. A few of the slaves, taking pity on him, snuck food to him and ferried a series of desperate letters to his father onto ships bound for England.

Miraculously, a captain deputized by his father did actually find Newton at the end of these two years of misery. But by that time, the younger Newton had found a new master and was set again on a course to financial success as a future owner of his own slaving operation. His father’s friend had to lie, claiming Newton was to come into a handsome inheritance back home, before John would return to England with him.

Aboard the Greyhound, Newton surpassed his earlier immorality and impiety, blaspheming to a degree that shocked even the older men and narrowly escaping death by drowning as he fell overboard during a party.

Just as Newton seemed irrevocably lost to the faith, he picked up, for lack of other shipboard reading material, Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, a Catholic devotional guide that had also deeply influenced John Wesley. At first, the book’s words meant little to him. But then came the first pivot point of his life’s voyage.

A cry in the dark

The Greyhound‘s voyage from Brazil to Newfoundland, laden with slaves, led them on March 21, 1748 (by the later, “new style” calendar), into a violent storm. In poor repair, the ship soon began to split and take on water, and Newton was awakened from sleep to find that the first crewmember had been swept away in the raging sea.

“Tied to the ship to prevent being washed away,” relates Hindmarsh, 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.”

At first Newton was convinced that he had sinned too much to have any hope for God’s forgiveness. Yet when the storm did not recede and he really felt he would soon meet his God, he at last clung to Scriptures that taught God’s grace towards sinners, and he breathed his first weak prayer in years. As he was later to recall it, this was “the hour he first believed.”

Yet Newton’s new faith would not find a solid footing for some months. Indeed the very next year, on a voyage as mate of the slaving ship Brownlow, Newton backslid entirely, giving his lust free license. It was only when, on a visit to the place of his previous captivity—Clow’s Plantain Island “factory”—he fell ill with a violent fever, that he came to himself.

Feeling that, as biographer John Pollock puts it, he had “crucified the Son of God afresh and thus had shut and locked the door of hope,” Newton nevertheless mustered enough faith to creep to a “remote corner of the island,” where, “between the palm trees and the sea he knelt upon the shore and found a new liberty to pray.”

After this episode, Newton never again went back on his faith. He developed a consistent habit of prayer, and his watchword became humility: “What a poor creature I am in myself, incapable of standing a single hour without continual fresh supplies of strength and grace from the fountain-head.”

A series of miraculous rescues from death by storm, starvation, mutiny plots, and slave uprisings reinforced his sense of that grace.

On the matter of slavery, Newton’s progress was slow. Though he disliked the inconvenience and dangers of the trade, he still accepted it as an honorable profession, as did the rest of “polite” eighteenth-century society. But in most other respects, Newton was clearly a changed man.

Just before he received his first command as captain of a slaving vessel, with a bright future ahead of him, Newton at last succeeded in winning Mary, whom he had now loved for seven years.

They were wed on February 1, 1750, and were soon devotedly attached to each other. Indeed Newton came near to idolizing her, as their relationship began to overshadow his nascent faith. He still found it embarrassing to talk about faith with Mary or her relatives, and he could not yet bring himself to pray with her.

In the years following his marriage, Newton captained two slaving vessels, the Duke of Argyle and the African, on three voyages. During the long months he began to pray for his slave cargo—distaste for the trade was beginning to dawn into something more.

The sad return of an old acquaintance

As Newton prepared for his second voyage as captain, aboard the African, he encountered the young man he had once “deconverted” from Christianity—Job Lewis. Reforging their acquaintance, he invited Lewis aboard as “Volunteer and Captain’s Commander.”

This was a decision he would soon regret, for the once clean-living young midshipman was now a hardened sinner. He not only fouled the air with his cursing and inflicted his cruel bad temper on the crew, but also flouted Newton’s authority.

When in January, having reached the Guinea Coast, Newton found a way to get for Lewis another ship—a small “snow”—he did so, with orders to trade on the African‘s account. Before this ship, the Racehorse, was launched, Newton came aboard and gave Lewis some final advice, both commercial and spiritual.

But nearly as soon as he left Newton, Lewis began indulging himself in every vice, from drinking to fighting to sleeping with the native women. When his dissipated lifestyle and the local climate felled him with a fever, Lewis’s body could offer little resistance.

As Newton soon heard of it from other sailors on the Racehorse, Lewis died enveloped in despair and rage, screaming that he was going to hell, but unable or unwilling to seek God’s mercy. Newton’s remorse was acute and long-lasting.

When, a few weeks later, Newton himself contracted a similar fever, he had much to think about. His own death no longer held for him the terror it once had. If recovery were denied him, he felt ready to face his end. But he did pray for two things: first, for better understanding of the faith so that he could turn unrepentant sinners onto the path of righteousness, and second, for freedom from the slave trade and the seafaring life.

In the spring of 1754, Newton met at St. Kitts a true friend—a Scottish captain, not engaged in the slave trade, by the name of Alexander Clunie. This was the first close Christian friend Newton had, and he was overjoyed. The two spent weeks together in May and June, with Newton drinking in the things of God as Clunie imparted them.

“I was all ears,” he wrote, “and what was better, he not only informed my understanding but his discourses inflamed my heart.” As Pollock put it, until now “Newton had thought of God as a distant potentate whom he must obey. Now he discovered that God could be very near and his love be warmer than Newton had dreamed.”

Newton’s prayers as he recovered from the fever were soon answered: after he arrived safely back in England that summer, he never sailed for a living again. Instead, he took a post as a “Tide Surveyor” in Liverpool, a well-paid government shore job that involved boarding vessels as they entered port and searching for smuggled goods.

When in 1756 the Seven Years’ War broke out, maritime traffic fell off to the point where Newton had a great deal of free time on his hands. In effect, this allowed him to become the most active layman in the land, touring widely and enjoying the preaching and fellowship of the day’s leading evangelicals.

“Little Whitefield”

One of his favorite contacts was the famed evangelist George Whitefield. In fact, Newton himself became known as “Little Whitefield”—not because he preached like the better-known man (for though he was beginning to speak publicly, he was still a far from polished orator), but because he shadowed the great preacher, even attending meetings at 5 A.M. in the bitter cold of winter, and dining with him when he could.

Newton’s contact with Whitefield gave him an exciting vision of how far “Gospel preaching” could go in British life. It seemed that evangelical Christianity would soon cease to be, as it had been in the Independent churches of his childhood, a hidden thing involving a minuscule percentage of the populace. It was on its way to gaining a new and significant public profile. And Whitefield, along with John Wesley, was leading the way towards this dream. (In actuality it would take until about the 1780s for this to really begin happening.)

When not tagging along with Whitefield, Newton spent much of his Liverpool phase attending both the small “religious societies” that met across England for preaching, testimony, and mutual edification, and any Dissenting or Established church he knew to have a “Gospel message.” He drank in the fellowship and spiritual knowledge with bottomless thirst. At home, he began teaching himself the biblical languages and reading books of divinity.

His own Seven Years’ War

Slowly there dawned on Newton the knowledge that God did not intend for him to remain in the civil service for his whole life. In 1757, he began formally to seek a “living”—that is, a ministerial appointment in an Established Church parish—and the ordination to go with it. Thus began his own “Seven Years’ War”—his struggle, between 1757 and 1764, to become an ordained minister in the Church of England.

To achieve that dearly desired goal, Newton had to press on through the flat refusal of several bishops to ordain him. They wanted no “enthusiast” or “Methodist” in one of their pulpits. When he met with his first refusal from the Anglican hierarchy, he began looking seriously at invitations from a variety of Dissenting churches. When none of these seemed right for him, he began to preach to friends in his own house.

Then at last, in the spring of 1764, through the influence of a powerful patron, Lord Dartmouth, Newton found himself the ordained curate of a congregation in the English midlands town of Olney, Buckinghamshire.

At home with the lowly

Although the largest town in its area, Olney was still fairly small. In 1712, the whole parish had comprised about 500 houses and 2,000 inhabitants within its 3,000 acres of land. Newton’s first impression was of a “low and dirty” country whose inhabitants mostly dwelt in poverty.

The town itself was a center of craft and trade for the surrounding area, and no craft was more important to its economy than the manufacture of bone-lace—lace woven on bone bobbins and used, by those who could afford it, for costume and interior decorating. Unfortunately, the price of lace fluctuated wildly, leaving the majority of these craftsmen (and -women and -children) cyclically on the brink of starvation.

In the midst of these folk, Newton found himself very much in his element. Not a man given to pretension, he once wrote of his far-flung correspondence, “I get more warmth and light sometimes by a letter from a plain person who loves the Lord Jesus, though perhaps a servant maid, than from some whole volumes, put forth by learned Doctors.”

From the beginning he did his work of soul care with the love born of a true “pastor’s heart,” preaching, singing, visiting, and establishing mid-week meetings of every description. He especially labored for the children of the parish, not only catechizing them personally, but also instituting annual three-day meetings during which the ministers from the surrounding area joined to preach and teach especially for the benefit of the area’s youth.

Newton was known for his open, emotional manner in the pulpit. Into the middle of a sermon recorded in one of his notebooks from the Olney years, he interjected an impassioned prayer, “The Lord … proclaims a free pardon, … and will you … refus[e] to hear his voice? O Lord God prevent, & rend the heavens & come down, [and] touch the stoney heart, that it may stand out no longer.”

We can imagine him turning his gaze on his hearers as he delivered the next line: “Let us chide our cold unfeeling hearts & pray for a coal of fire from the heavenly altar to send us home in a flame of love to him who has thus loved us.”

Newton’s ministry extended beyond the borders of his parish. Having friends in both Established and Dissenting pulpits across the land, he traveled and preached regularly, relishing the fellowship as well as the exercise of his Gospel calling. Back home, he welcomed visitors from all over the country to his own home, where many stayed to dine and talk long into the night.

The Remarkable Life of Mr. ********

To his contemporaries, probably the key moment of Newton’s long career was the publication in 1764, just after his thirty-ninth birthday, of his spiritual autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of ********.

The Authentic Narrative told of his early life, with all its adventures and divine mercies. Throughout, its theme was God’s amazing grace. And despite the coy omission of his name, everyone soon knew whose “interesting particulars” were recorded here. Thereafter, Newton’s fame only grew. (The book is available today in a reprint of the 1841 edition titled The Life & Spirituality of John Newton [Regent College, 1998].)

During his Olney period, Newton also wrote many hymns. These he often wrote to accompany sermons for the whole church or for one of the mid-week meetings, and he particularly liked to teach hymns to the children and sing along with them. Often he would write a hymn to address the specific need of some member of his congregation.

In 1767, Newton was joined in this enterprise by the brilliant but mentally unstable poet William Cowper. In 1779, as a testament to their friendship, Newton published the Olney Hymns hymnal. That collection included the hymn that would attain, in the colonies soon to be lost to them, a fame never grudged it by the English: “Amazing Grace” (see p. 2 and p. 25 of this issue).

Years of influence

Not everyone in Olney remained pleased with their curate’s ministry. If Newton had a significant fault as a pastor, it was a failure to protect his ministerial authority. He so encouraged his parishioners to engage in lay ministry in the mid-week prayer groups and other meetings he instituted, that some became restive under his leadership.

When on one occasion Newton spoke out against the reckless behavior typical of Guy Fawkes Day celebrations, many in the town—even Christians—set themselves against his authority. When the festivities on that day did indeed get out of hand, Newton found himself having to bribe the mob to avoid having his house burned down around him.

Following this incident, Newton perceived that the townspeople were increasingly afflicted by spiritual deadness. He even complained once to a friend that they had become “sermon-proof.” The independent-minded artisans of the town felt they had grown beyond their minister. So when in 1779 the bluff, warm-hearted ex-captain found himself invited by England’s richest merchant, John Thornton, to become rector of one of the most prestigious parishes in London, St. Mary Woolnoth, he accepted and was installed that December.

Newton served Christ in London until his death in 1807, influencing not only Wilberforce but such luminaries of early nineteenth-century evangelicalism as the Cambridge pastor Charles Simeon, the leading clergyman Richard Cecil, and the author and philanthropist Hannah More (in whose conversion he was instrumental).

By the end of his life, Newton was widely beloved in England and beyond. During his years of ministry, evangelicalism began slowly to move out of its “hidden years” in the Established Church’s lectureships and private chapels (see p. 40), and into the limelight of prominent churches and reforming agencies. In this fertile period for “Gospel” ministers, “Gospel” hymns, “Gospel” books and meetings, Newton was everywhere—a trusted father and counselor in the young movement. His hymns were sung, his sermons well attended, and his letters of spiritual advice passed from hand to hand (see p. 37), with more than 500 of them eventually seeing publication.

An old sinner to the very end

Through all the years of ministry and fame, Newton never forgot how far he had come. Over the fireplace in his vicarage study at Olney, where he would always see it as he prepared for Sunday services and mid-week meetings, he placed a plaque reading, in large letters, as follows:

“Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable (Isa. 18:4), BUT Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee (Deut. 15:15).”

When he died, Newton left behind the epitaph that remains today on his gravestone. It returns to this same twin theme of slavery from sin and unmerited redemption:

“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 laboured to destroy.”

In a funeral sermon for Newton, his friend and fellow minister Richard Cecil quoted him late in life, “Whatever I may doubt on other points, I cannot doubt whether there has been a certain gracious transaction between God and my soul.”

Inside Informer

It was many years before the moral vileness of the slave trade dawned on Newton. When it did, he played a key role against it.

That Newton continued in the slave trade after his conversion is often considered evidence of hypocrisy. And to our sensibilities, it is certainly troubling. As biographer Bruce Hindmarsh puts it, when at mid-life Newton wrote his Authentic Narrative, he listed blasphemy as his chief sin, while “participation in the cruelty of the slave trade did not yet seem even to trouble his conscience.”

“The most disturbing aspect of Newton’s typical imagery,” says Hindmarsh, “was the correlation of blackness and bondage with alienation from God while, at the same time, these ideas were so closely associated with the enslaved African peoples, to whose suffering he remained largely unsympathetic throughout his narrative. In describing his state during the two years in Africa, he recounted how, after some success in business under a new master, he desired perhaps to stay there, adding, ‘There is a significant phrase frequently used in those parts, That such a white man is grown black. It does not intend an alteration of complexion, but disposition. … I entered into closer engagements with the inhabitants; and should have lived and died a wretch amongst them, if the Lord had not watched over me for good.'”

Newton thus made his spiritual deliverance parallel to his escape from the presence of Africans themselves. We see here the presumptive racism of Newton’s age, which also made it easy for his contemporaries to treat slaving as just another genteel occupation.

To be sure, Newton found the trade distasteful and resented the long separations from his Mary that it entailed. But it was only later that, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the help of his young protégé Wilberforce, Newton came to see the depth of the slave trade’s sinfulness.

Newton’s chance to fight the practice came in 1788 when, after years of debate over the issue in Parliament, Prime Minister William Pitt at last struck a committee of his Privy Council to investigate the slave trade. The “star witness”—the only man in England who was both able and willing to paint the harrowing details of that trade “from the inside”—was John Newton.

3 responses to “The amazingly graced life of John Newton

  1. Pingback: “I laughed, I cried, I changed”–sentimental narrative in early evangelicalism « Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Sharing stories from the heart: can reading about the lives of others really change us? « Grateful to the dead

  3. Pingback: Grateful to the dead

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