(1725 – 1807)
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see”
John Newton, the author of this inspiring hymn, wrote it to reflect God’s transforming grace in his life – one that was hardened by sin, profanity and blasphemy. Indeed, the wicked and vile slave captain was a “wretch” with nothing to plead before God. It was by God’s “amazing grace” that he was wondrously saved.
Though many have been richly blessed by this much-loved hymn, “no one has ever had a more complete understanding of the words than the author himself had. It is a marvelous picture of the transforming power and the all-sufficiency of divine grace. Having drunk heavily and long at the cistern of sin, Newton was awed by this grace that had brought him into the sharp contrast of partaking freely of the fountain of living water, the water of eternal life” (Treasury of Great Hymns by Guye Johnson).
The son of a sea captain, and an only child, John Newton was born in Wapping, a district in London near the Thames on 24th July 1725. From an early age, his godly mother, Elizabeth, taught John the Holy Scriptures. Having dedicated her son to the Lord at infancy, it was her constant prayer that he would one day become a minister of the Gospel.
When he was not quite seven years old, his beloved mother died of tuberculosis. Her death hit him hard. Deeply disappointed with God, John began “a decline into rebellion and degradation that lasted until his 24th year” (http://logosresourcepages.org/Music/amazing.htm).
Shortly after his mother’s death, his father remarried. While his father was at sea, young John was raised by his emotionally distant stepmother and sent to a boarding school where he fell into bad company. At the age of 11, after only two years of schooling, he joined his father’s ship as a seaman.
“But, bad though this young English lad was, he could not entirely forget God, or his departed mother's prayers, and he made a profession three or four times before he was sixteen. He fasted and prayed, and read the Word of God; but he did not really repent and turn to Christ for salvation; so all his efforts to be good ended in dismal failure. But God had His eye upon him; He allowed him to pass through many painful and humiliating experiences in order that he might see how bad he really was, and how much he had need of a Saviour such as Jesus is to all who call upon Him in truth”(http://wholesomewords.org/biography/bnewton9.html).
When he was eighteen, John was captured and forced into the naval service by the Royal Navy. He served on board the H.M.S. Harwich, an English warship. Unable to endure the harsh daily regime, he deserted but was soon recaptured. He was flogged before the crew of 350 and reduced to the rank of a common seaman. Following this public humiliation, the young sailor hardened his heart and sank deeper into sin.
John lived a vile and blasphemous life. His friend and biographer, Richard Cecil, says: “The companions he met with here completed the ruin of his principles.” John himself wrote: “I was capable of anything; I had not the least fear of God before my eyes nor (so far as I remember) the least sensibility of conscience …” (The Select Words of the Rev John Newton).
One book that deeply influenced Newton’s thinking and drove his deplorable conduct was Lord Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinion, Times. Its simple message of “philosophical universalism”: “Human nature does not err … Misconduct is nothing more than a bad taste in morals” appealed to the rebellious spirit of the wilful teenager. With man portrayed as inherently good, John could now freely carry on with his sinful indulgences. Thus, with “fine words and fair speeches my simple heart was beguiled” (The Select Words of the Rev John Newton). The cross, of which his saintly mother had spoken of so often, meant nothing to him. Shaftebury’s Characteristics had set him “free”, and free he would remain.
Thus, John rejected the Scriptures and the spiritual instructions of his mother. He publicly scoffed at the Bible and entertained the crew with blasphemous antics of the parables and miracles of Christ.
It was only in later years that the converted prodigal realised that his new conviction had not brought him freedom but bondage to sin. Looking back, John saw the sovereign hand of God preparing and leading him to repentance.
(… to be continued)