(1725 – 1807)
“Who could measure the depth of this man’s sin? His life at sea was so full of reckless abandon to sin as to be beyond estimate. But if we could not measure the depth of his sin, how much less are we able to measure the sovereign grace that removed his sin from him ‘as far as the east is from the west’” (Treasury of Great Hymns)
Finally, at his own request, Newton was transferred to another ship as a servant to a slave dealer. His new master, Amos Clow, and his mistress mistreated and abused him. At one point “my distress has been at times so great, as to compel me to go by night, and pull up roots in the plantation, (though at the risk of being punished as a thief,) which I have eaten raw upon the spot, for fear of discovery”. Pitying him, the other slaves would sometimes feed him from their own meagre rations. Deeply embittered by the cruelty of his masters, John contemplated revenge against them.
However, one restraining influence from his meditated purpose was his sweetheart, Mary Cartlett, who later became his wife. When he was 17, John had met 14-year-old Mary when he was visiting his mother’s distant relatives. He fell deeply in love with her. For the next seven years, Mary was always in his thoughts: “None of the scenes of misery and wickedness I afterwards experienced ever banished her a single hour together from my waking thoughts for the seven following years.” As he participated in the cruelties and horrors of the slave trade on the high seas, the memory of his beloved sweetheart sustained him: “My love for Mary was now the only restraint I had left.”
Cruel slave master
In early 1748, John was rescued by a sea captain, a friend of his father. He then became the captain of his own slave ship. As a slave master, Newton participated in the horrors and cruelties of abusing the slaves. The male slaves were shackled together in the hold with hardly five feet of headroom between decks. The heat and stench were unbearable, and many slaves died from fever and dysentery. But Newton had grown so accustomed to this inhumane trade that his conscience no longer troubled him: “I seemed to have every mark of final impenitence and rejection; neither judgements nor mercies made the least impression on me.”
Continuing with his vile ways, Newton admitted that he loved sin, and was unwilling to forsake it. He later recorded sadly: “I know not that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer. Not content with common oaths and imprecations, I daily invented new ones.”
Deliverance and conversion
21st March 1748 was a day that Newton would never forget: “On that day the Lord sent from on high, and delivered me out of deep waters.” He awoke in the night to a violent storm at sea. The gale was so severe that the crew – many of them hardened seamen – tied themselves to the ship to keep from being swept overboard. At the helm for many hours desperately trying to save the ship, John had time to reflect on his wicked past. His life seemed as ruined and hopeless as the battered ship that was being tossed about on the angry seas. A wave of despair engulfed him and he felt himself “sinking under the weight of all my sins into the ocean, and into eternity”. In the midst of the tempest, Newton experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance”. He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Gradually, the sea calmed and the ship and its crew landed safely.
Back in his cabin, John reflected on the miraculous deliverance; he believed that God had confronted him through the storm and begun a work of grace in his heart. On this day 57 years later, in 1805, when Newton was 80 years old, he wrote in his diary, “March 21, 1805. Not well able to write. But I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer and praise.”
“Only God’s amazing grace could and would take a rude, profane, slave-trading sailor and transform him into a child of God. Newton never ceased to stand in awe of God’s work in his life”(http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800). How appropriate are the words of the second stanza of “Amazing Grace”: “Thru many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me Home.”
(… to be continued)
(Unless otherwise mentioned, quotations are taken from The Select Words of the Rev John Newton.)