God’s Amazing Grace in the Life of John Newton

by Derrick G. Jeter

December 31, 1772. How many scenes I have passed through in that time! By what a way the Lord has led me! What wonders he has shown me! My book is now nearly full, and I shall provide another for the next year. O Lord, accept my praise for all that is past. Enable me to trust thee for all that is to come, and give a blessing to all who may read these records of thy goodness and my own vileness. Amen and amen (Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, 225).

The next morning, New Year’s Day, 1773, the members of John Newton’s church in Olney first sang what became the most popular hymn in the world: Amazing Grace. The inspiration for the hymn came from two places—Newton’s sermon preparation for that New Year’s Day service, and reviewing his life as he was finishing the last pages of a diary he had kept for twenty-one years.

John Newton’s life couldn’t have been any more different than King David’s. Yet, he saw within David the same amazing grace that God had poured out on his own life. While studying 1 Chronicles 17:16–17 for the New Year’s Day service, Newton was struck by David’s question: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house that You have brought me this far?”

God had certainly brought John Newton a long way from an earlier life marked by the chapel and the quarterdeck. Newton grew up under a godly mother who taught him about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that the Bible was the Word of God. Often taking him to the little chapel on Old Gravel Lane in Wapping, the port village where he lived, Newton loved to sing the hymns. Newton’s father was a respected merchant ship captain, who delighted in taking him to the docks to play on his ship. Tragically, Newton’s mother died where he was about six or seven, and though his father remarried his stepmother could never replace her. At eleven, Captain Newton gave young John a job aboard ship, thus began his sailing life and the drift of his faith.

At seventeen, while sailing the Mediterranean, Newton read a book by the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics, which would lead him on a rapid descent into atheism. This book convinced him that there was no transcendent truth, it was merely personal opinion. Returning home from this trip, his father, now retired, secured a position for John to serve as a slave overseer at a sugar plantation on Jamaica. But before setting sail, he received a letter from his mother’s best friend extending an invitation for him to visit if he was ever in the area of Kent. As it happened, Newton had been sent by his father on a business errand and he had to pass through Kent on his way home before catching his ship. Deciding to turn into his mother’s friend’s house for a hot meal and a warm bed for the night, John was met at the door by the woman’s daughter, Polly. Newton fell in love with her on the spot and spent three weeks with Polly and her family.

Missing his opportunity in Jamaica, Newton’s father was able to get him a job on a merchant vessel. After ten months at sea, Newton asked leave to see Polly, which was granted but he grossly overstayed and missed the ship when it set sail. Again, Captain Newton secured another position on a ship, but seeing Polly before sailing he ran into a press gang of the Royal Navy and was placed into active duty on the hms Harwich.

On board the Harwich, Newton befriended the Captain’s clerk, James Mitchell, who was an atheist and persuaded Newton that Christianity wasn’t true and that giving into his sensual desires was no sin. Newton and Mitchell often discussed religion, as well as the book Characteristics. Mitchell convinced Newton that the book didn’t affirm religion, but denied it. Sometime in the early summer of 1744, Newton threw his Christian faith overboard, and wrote later: “I believed my own lie. . . . Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the gospel at the very time when ever other comfort was about to fail me” (John Pollock, Amazing Grace: The Great Sea Change in the Life of John Newton, 14).

Back in England, Newton heard that the scuttlebutt of a four or five year tour in India. He beged for permission to see Polly, which he again violated. The Captain, though angry with Newton, forgave but no longer trusted him. Later, while gathering supplies for the Harwich, Newton decided to live by his motto—“Never Deliberate”—and deserted from the Royal Navy. Twenty-four hours later, found near Dartmouth, Newton was arrested, stripped, and given twenty-four lashes with a cat o’ nine tails formed of knotted ropes, and thrown back into service.

On May 9, 1745, at Funchal Roads off Madeira, Newton was traded off the Harwich and went aboard a merchant ship—he was nineteen. The Pegasus was a slave ship. Now an avowed atheist, it didn’t take long for Newton to satisfy his sexual appetites by raping many of the slave women. Plying his new trade, he got to know the part-owner of the Pegasus, Amos Clow, who also operated some “factories” on the coast of Sierra Leone where slaves were processed and deals negotiated with slaving ships. Newton decided he might like to try his hand at managing one of Clow’s factories, which he did successfully until he and Clow argued and Clow had him shackled at the ankles and placed under the orders of a slave to plant lime trees.

Now a slave’s slave, Newton suffered until a stroke of fortune came his way. Another factory owner thought it wasteful for a white man to be treated like a common slave, and so negotiated a deal with Clow for Newton’s release. Granted, Newton managed this man’s factory until he eventually found passage on an English ship bound for home, the Greyhound. While on board, Newton began to debate with the crew about Christianity—blaspheming the name of Christ and denying the existence of God. However, he also read a paraphrase of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. The words stirred his conscience, and he wondered if what he was reading was true. Quickly shutting the thought from his mind, he went below decks and to bed. Then suddenly, a violent storm broke over the ship flinging him awake.

Running up the ladder to lend a hand on deck, the Captain yelled down for him to bring a knife. As Newton turned to grab the knife, the man who was in front of him was swept overboard by a massive wave. Taking on water, the Greyhound looked like she would soon go under. Shouting advice into the Captain’s ear, Newton said, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us!” One biographer has written: “At once it occurred to him: ‘What mercy can there be for me?’—the ship’s chief atheist, the loudest swearer, the man who mocked God’s existence—‘What mercy can there be for me?’” (Pollock, Amazing Grace, 22–23)

Taking the helm, Newton, in relative protection of the half-shattered wheelhouse, had a chance to reflect on his past: “If the Christian religion was true I could not be forgiven, [for] my unparalleled effrontery in making the Gospel history . . . the constant subject of profane ridicule” (Pollock, Amazing Grace, 24). Looking out of the wheelhouse onto the turbulent sea, he though of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the truth that those who believed would be forgiven of their sins—but he wasn’t sure it was true. As the night worn on the storm subsided, but in the morning the crew of the Greyhound faced another danger: the threat of starvation and thirst—most of their food and water had been washed overboard or ruined by the sea.

Newton saw the hand of God in saving them thus far, and wondered, “I can see no reason why the Lord singled me out for mercy . . . unless it was to show, by one astonishing instance, that with Him ‘nothing is impossible’” (Pollock, Amazing Grace, 25). Picking up the ship’s New Testament, he read the familiar stories of Christ. And there, in a waterlogged and battered cabin of the Greyhound, John Newton trusted Christ.

The more I looked at what Jesus had done on the cross, the more He met my case exactly. I needed someone or something to stand between a righteous God and my sinful self: between a God who must punish sins and blasphemies, and myself, who had wallowed in both to the neck. I needed an Almighty Savior who should step in and take my sins away, and I found such a one in the New Testament. It told me that Jesus Christ was ‘God manifest in the flesh, reconciling the world to himself’ so that God might declare His justice, in punishing my sin, and declare His mercy also, in taking that punishment on Himself on the cross, so that I might be pardoned (Pollock, Amazing Grace, 25).

Returning to London, Newton married Polly and became the first mate or captain of three different slaving ships: the Brownlow, the Duke of Argyle, and The African. Thirty years later, he wrote, “I am sure that had I thought of the Slave Trade then as I have thought of it since, no consideration would have induced me to continue” (Pollock, Amazing Grace, 28). Before setting sail on his fourth ship, the Bee, and wrestling with his conscience, Newton suddenly collapsed. Recovering, he gave up the slave trade, never to leave England again. Eventually, he became a pastor in the small village of Olney, where he wrote Amazing Grace.

Later, Newton would pastor a church in London, where he persuaded a young MP, William Wilberforce, to fight to put an end of the slave trade, which passed in Parliament in March 1807. Nine months later, on December 21, 1807, the 82-year old Newton lay on his bed “packed and sealed, and waiting for the post,” as he quipped. Barely able to speak, Newton’s attendant leaned over the bed to hear his last words—“My memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner . . . and Christ—is a great Savior!” (Pollock, Amazing Grace, 34) 

Aitken, Jonathan. John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007).
Pollock, John. Amazing Grace: The Great Sea Change in the Life of John Newton (McLean, VA: The Trinity Forum, 2006).