John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, the world’s best-known song, believed in the transforming power of Grace. Being an only child, he was deeply loved by his godly mother Elizabeth who taught him the Holy scriptures. She longed for her son to one day be a pastor.
His mother’s best friend was also named Elizabeth. They both agreed that their young children (John Newton and Mary Catlett) should marry each other one day. But sadly, Newton’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1732, leaving him motherless at age six. His stern, sea captain father at this time was often away at sea. Later, after his father remarried, Newton was sent away to an abusive boarding school in Essex. Because of his troubles at school at age 11, he went to sea with his father for six voyages.
He soon became a teenage rebel, notorious for his headstrong disobedience and raging anger. When he was seventeen, he visited the Catlett family, falling deeply in love with Mary, nicknamed Polly by him. In his autobiography, he notably said: “Almost at the first sight of this girl (for she was then under fourteen), I felt an affection for her, which never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart. In degree, it equaled all that the writers of romance have imagined; in duration it was unalterable.”
Mary also knew from that very day that sooner or later they would become husband and wife.
His navy captain was not pleased that Newton kept running off to visit Mary. When he did not get back in time from his leave, they threatened to kill him for deserting. Instead he was stripped to the waist and flogged with 96 lashes. No-one was allowed to talk to him for a week and he was demoted from midshipman to a common seaman. Newton was strongly tempted to kill the captain and thought about committing suicide. It was his love for Mary that kept him from ending his life: “My love was the only restraint I had left.”
As Newton was so bad tempered and rebellious, his captain traded him to a slave trader captain. Because Newton made up songs mocking his new boss, he was then sold to a slaveowner in Africa. He became a slave from 1745-1747 to Princess Peye, an African princess who treated him with contempt. Unexpectedly, Newton’s father had asked a sea captain to look for him, which he did. When found, Newton was freed and sailed back to England.
Back at sea, He was so blasphemous that once even his hardened shipmates threatened to throw him overboard in order to calm a dangerous storm. He was so hated by his fellow sailors that when he fell overboard in a drunken rage, their only attempt to rescue him was to spear him with a whaling harpoon, dragging him back onboard. From that day, he walked with a limp.
Secretly he began to read the Bible, although it never made sense to him. One night in March 1748, at the age of 23, he was on board a cargo ship experiencing heavy seas and extremely rough weather. Worn out with pumping water and almost frozen, he called out for God’s mercy at the height of the storm and was amazed to be saved from almost certain death. As he wrote in his journal, “The Lord sent from on high and delivered me from deep waters.”
At age 25, Newton married his childhood sweetheart, Mary, on February 1, 1750. Unable to have children, they adopted their two nieces Betsy and Eliza. Newton became a sea captain and was often away from home. He wrote many love letters to Mary. Three years after her death from breast cancer in 1790, he published Letters to a Wife as a memorial to their marriage and as an example for other people to follow.
While he loved his wife passionately, Newton often commented that his love for God had to be greater. He believed that many failed or miserable marriages came from expecting one’s spouse to give to them complete happiness: “It is to him we owe that happiness in a marriage state which so many seek in vain, some of whom set out with such hopes and prospects, that their disappointments can be deduced for no other cause, than having placed that high regard on a creature which is only due to the creator.”
Newton had a stroke and became a tide surveyor, collecting taxes for the Port of Liverpool.
John Wesley and George Whitefield helped disciple Newton, who, at age 39, became an Anglican clergyman, serving in the backwater town of Olney, sixty miles North of London. With William Cowper in 1779, he wrote the first Anglican hymnbook. Newton wrote 280 of the Olney hymns, producing one new hymn each Sunday. Before Newton’s hymnbook, Anglicans only chanted psalms in church services.
His bestselling book, An Authentic Narrative, opened the door in 1780 to his becoming the Rector/Senior Pastor of St Mary Woolnoth Church in London. Newton joined the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. His influential pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, sent to every Member of both Houses of Parliament in 1788, helped convince many powerful people to lobby for change: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
In 1785, he persuaded the young William Wilberforce to stay in politics, and joined him in his fight to abolish the slave trade. Being an ex-slave trader, he was able to prove how brutal and degrading slavery really was. Rusty Wright commented that, “Newton testified before important parliamentary committees, describing chains, overcrowded quarters, separated families, sexual exploitation, floggings, and beatings.”
Some wealthy business people defended the slave trade as both harmless to the slaves and essential to economic stability. They even argued that the African slaves preferred being slaves. On December 21, 1807, at age 82, after helping Great Britain pass the Slave Trade Act, he died, entering into Jesus’ nearer presence. No longer could new slaves be transported from Africa.
Newton’s song Amazing Grace has become the theme song of freedom, being sung at Martin Luther King Jr’s Freedom Marches, at the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the freeing of Nelson Mandela from twenty-seven years in Apartheid prison.
John and Mary Newton are a parable of what amazing grace is all about: moving from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from selfishness to everlasting love.