The life of John Newton is definitely one worth reading about!
His background is one of the sea and a number of his hymns reflect back to those days of childhood and early manhood when he sailed the perilous oceans in the great sailing ships of the 18th Century. His father was a naval captain and young John saw little of him. His mother was the greatest influence on his life, teaching him Bible stories, singing hymns and praying for his salvation while he sat on her knee.
Newton’s world fell apart when his mother died just before his seventh birthday and he descended into a life of total wretchedness and sin. Having been ‘press ganged’ into the navy he rebelled against all authority. He would curse and swear, was violent and his behaviour was so bad that he was abandoned in West Africa, living as a slave at the mercy of a despicable slave trader and his African wife.
Remarkably he was rescued and was making his way home, when on the night of 10th March 1748 a terrible storm almost totally wrecked the ship. Newton was strapped to the wheel of the ship endeavouring to steer a course through the storm. He cried out to God in fear and desperation for salvation. All the prayers, hymns and Bible verses he had learned those years before on his mother’s knee came flooding back to his mind. This was the beginning of Newton coming to full assurance of his salvation in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.
Years later in grateful service to God he served as a Curate to a Church in Olney in Buckinghamshire (and later as Rector to a Church in London). It was while at Olney that many of Newton’s most well known hymns were written and the famous book of, “Olney Hymns” composed by Newton and his good friend William Cowper. One of those hymns was, “Amazing Grace”.
Newton’s biographer, Jonathan Aitken, takes up the story of this lovely hymn in his book, “John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace”:
“John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ is the most sung, most recorded and most loved hymn in the world. No other song, spiritual or secular, comes close to it in terms of numbers of recordings, (over 3,000 in the United States alone), frequency of performances (it is publicly sung at least 10 million times a year), international popularity across six continents or cultural longevity (238 years and going strong)…..Yet among the billions of people who have enjoyed singing or listening to it, remarkably few have any knowledge of its origins, purposes,
consequences or history.
“Amazing Grace” was conceived by Newton in late December 1772 as part of the preparations he was making for a New Year’s Day sermon to his parishioners on January 1, 1773. The notion of writing a hymn in order to prepare for a sermon would have been alien to most eighteenth-century clergymen, but Newton was an ingenious innovator in this field of spiritual communication. In the previous two years he had been experimenting with the highly unusual activity (for a Church of England incumbent) of writing “People’s Hymns.” This activity stemmed from Newton’s realization that the principal religious books of the established church, the King James Bible and 1662 Book of Common Prayer, were full of words and phrases that uneducated people found difficult to understand.
As his Olney congregation consisted largely of lace-makers, agricultural labourers, malting’s workers, blacksmiths, carpenters and other artisans or tradesmen, Newton thought he could help them to understand the Scriptures if he amplified his sermons by writing simply worded hymns that illustrated the biblical passages on which he was preaching.
At the beginning of his curacy in Olney, Newton used the hymns of other writers such as Isaac Watts or John and Charles Wesley for this purpose. The first recipients of this biblical teaching through hymns had been the children of the parish……When Newton realized how effective the singing and learning by heart of hymns could be as a spiritual teaching aid for children, he expanded the practice to the adult members of his congregation….Although the hymn singing there proved popular, it was only occasionally extended into Olney church itself, rather than prayer meetings during the week, because the eighteenth-century Church of England frowned upon anything other than metrical Psalms (the Psalms set to song meters) being sung within consecrated buildings.
There was a particular reason why Newton might have chosen January 1, 1773 as a date on which to expound on God’s grace. He was in the habit of regarding every New Year’s Day as a milestone for spiritual stock taking. Newton’s diary notes for his sermon in Olney Church on this New Year’s Day show that he developed the theme of his December 31 diary entry. For he began by emphasizing the importance of being grateful to God for his past mercies. Then he asked the same rhetorical question that David had asked some three thousand years earlier: “Who am I, Lord?”
Newton’s answer took on autobiographical overtones clearly echoed in his just written hymn. For he declared that unconverted sinners were blinded by the ‘god of this world’ (Satan) until “God’s mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired…… our hearts endeavoured to shut him out till He overcame us by the power of grace.”
Newton’s own words sum up his amazement at God’s grace in the salvation of sinners, particularly to him!
“When I get to heaven, I shall see three wonders there – the first wonder will be to see many people there whom I did not expect to see; the second wonder will be to miss many people whom I did expect to see; and the third and greatest wonder of all will be to find myself there!”
John Newton’s own epitaph on a plaque in Olney Churchyard:
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 Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy. He ministered, near sixteen years as curate of this Parish, and twenty-eight years as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth.
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.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
John Newton 1725 – 1807