John Newton: At A Glance
Born: July 24, 1725, London, England.
Died: December 21, 1807, London, England.
John Newton’s mother died when he was seven years old. At age 11, with but two years schooling and only a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, John went to sea with his father. His life at sea was filled with wonderful escapes and a sailor’s recklessness. He grew into a godless and abandoned man.
Sailors of the day were not noted for the refinement of their manners, but Newton had a reputation for profanity, coarseness, and debauchery, which even shocked many a sailor. It was this lifestyle that led to Newton’s nickname. He was known as “The Great Blasphemer.”
His mother had prayed he would become a minister and had early taught him the Scriptures and Isaac Watts’ Divine Songs for Children. Newton had rejected his mother’s teachings and had led other sailors into unbelief. Even still on one of Newton’s journeys a chance reading of Thomas à Kempis sowed the seed of his conversion. It was accelerated by a night spent steering a water logged ship in the face of apparent death. It was during this storm that some of those early childhood teachings came to mind. He remembered Proverbs 1:24-31, and in the midst of that storm, those verses seemed to confirm Newton in his despair:
24 Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, 25 because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, 26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, 27 when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. 28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. 29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, 30 would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, 31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices.
John Newton believed he was beyond hope and beyond saving, even if the Scriptures were true. Yet, Newton’s thoughts began to turn to Christ. He found a New Testament and began to read. Luke 11:13 seemed to assure him that God might still hear him:
13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
It was on that day at the helm, March 21, 1748, that Newton remembered ever after, for “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” He was then 23 years old.
After his conversion John Newton went on and still dealt in the slave trade for roughly six years. Though Newton continued in his profession of sailing and slave-trading for a time, his life was transformed. He began a disciplined schedule of Bible study, prayer, and Christian reading. In 1764, at the age of thirty-nine, John Newton began forty-three years of preaching the Gospel of Christ in the town of Olney.
Newton would go on and become an incredible preacher and prolific hymn writer. For the Sunday evening services, Newton often composed a hymn, which developed the lessons and Scripture for the evening. In 1779, two hundred and eighty of these were collected and combined with sixty-eight hymns by Newton’s friend and parishioner, William Cowper, and published as the Olney Hymns.
It was through this collection of hymns that we get the most famous of all the Olney Hymns which grew out of David’s exclamation in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. It was titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” We know it today as “Amazing Grace.”
Newton lived to be eighty-two years old and continued to preach and have an active ministry until beset by fading health in the last two or three years of his life. Even then, Newton never ceased to be amazed by God’s grace and told his friends, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”