John Newton: The Rest of the Story
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
We began this Grace Immersion with the story of John Newton’s composition of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” but that’s just one highlight of a truly colorful life. Here’s the rest of the story.
Newton was an only child beloved by his religiously devout mother. But when he was seven his mother died suddenly, leaving him in the care of his frequently absent seafaring father. He was allowed by his stepmother to run completely free, getting into all kinds of adolescent trouble.
Whenever he fell into temptation he’d feel horribly guilty, as if he was displeasing his dead mother. He’d vow to live up to her ideals. He’d turn to spiritual disciplines like rigorous prayer, reading religious literature only and studiously keeping spiritual diaries.
But at 17 he went on a months-long voyage as a sailor and soon took up smoking, swearing, and indulging every lust when in port. He’d still have pangs of guilt. Then on one of his ships he met the captain’s clerk, a man named Mitchell. He was an atheist playboy who told Newton, “Life… was for the taking. God is a phantom invented by killjoy religious types. We must eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die and pass into extinction.” (quoted in an article by Chris Armstrong for Christian History magazine)
Newton was delighted to escape the guilt and constraints of his mother’s religion. After this he delighted in “deconverting” Christians, as he called it, just as he had been “deconverted” himself.
He soon became involved in the slave trade. Somehow his independent spirit annoyed his first employer so much that Newton himself was put in chains and made a servant. A few of the slaves had pity on him, snuck in food, and smuggled out a series of desperate letters addressed to his father.
Two years later a ship sent by his father rescued him, but Newton continued sailing in the slave trade, mistreating the very people who had helped him earlier, and reaching depths of immorality that shocked even the older sailors. One night he narrowly escaped death by drowning after he fell overboard during an alcohol-fueled party, but he had apparently still not hit bottom. That came when his ship went through the famous storm. The vessel began to split apart. One sailor was washed overboard. Tied to the ship to prevent being washed away, Newton steered the ship through the night. All the while he reviewed his life. Finally he prayed that desperate prayer for God to save the ship and forgive him. As he was later to recall it, this was “the hour I first believed.”
And so the prodigal returned home. He still found it embarrassing to talk about faith, he could not yet bring himself to pray with anyone, and he even sailed his slave ship for a while longer. But a small seed began to grow.
Newton left slave trading and became a customs inspector, eventually deciding to leave the shipping industry entirely to be a pastor. But the religious leaders of his day were less than enthused about the idea. By this time he’d started speaking about his conversion at “religious societies” and church authorities were suspicious of this maverick with a rough past. After completing his education as a pastor, Newton had to endure seven years of flat refusal from several bishops to ordain him! Finally one let him pastor a church in the tiny town of Olney, a place with only 2,000 people.
While there he was made famous by his best-selling autobiography, coming clean about everything in his past and focusing on God’s amazing grace shown throughout his colorful life.
By 1800 no evangelical pastor in the world was more famous or more influential than John Newton. Yet Newton remained very humble, always aware of his past, calling himself “the old African blasphemer.”
At 82, he said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” I love that he focused on Christ, the grace-giver, not just grace as a concept. This is my hope for you.
As John Newton’s tombstone reads,
“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 labored to destroy.”
’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.”
How does the phrase “his kindness leads you to repentance” summarize what you’ve learned about grace?
What motivates you about the life of John Newton?
Today sing or think through the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” as a prayer, reviewing what God’s done in your past and expecting great things, by His grace, in your future!
BONUS: Keep on going! Here is some more grace stories: bonus.pdf