John Newton, author of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” was born on August 4, 1725, in London, England. His father was the captain of a merchant ship and gone from home for months at a time. John’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was just seven years old. After being sent to boarding school for the next four years, John’s father took him on his first sea voyage to the Mediterranean (Italy, Spain, Greece and North Africa) at age eleven. While on another voyage with his father at fifteen years of age John picked up a book in a Holland marketplace simply because it had an English title, Characteristics. Written by a “Freethinker” who espoused Deism and moral relativism, the volume proved spiritually misguiding to John.
Two years later John met and fell in love with Mary Catlett (more commonly called Polly), who was three years his junior. At age eighteen, Newton was pressganged into service on the HMS Harwich. He was promoted to the rank of Midshipman and became a professing atheist through the influence of a fellow officer. When he learned the ship was to go to the East Indies for five years, he couldn’t bear the thought of being away from his beloved Polly that long. He deserted ship, intending to find his father who could have him transferred to the Merchant Navy. Instead, Newton was caught, stripped of his office and flogged before the entire ship’s company till he lost consciousness.
Shortly before he turned twenty, Newton was traded to a merchant captain whose ship was sailing to the Grain Coast (modern Sierra Leone), on the west coast of Africa. Newton proved to be a terrible blasphemer and troublemaker on ship. Upon reaching Africa, he was permitted to stay on a small island off the coast of Sierra Leone, where a Mr. Clow was establishing a plantation using slave labor.
Clow’s African wife, Pey Ey, the daughter of a powerful chief, envied and disliked Newton intensely. While Clow was away on a trading mission, Newton became desperately ill and weak, and Pey Ey starved and mocked him. He was reduced to sneaking out at night to dig up roots with his bare hands in order to stave off hunger. Back from his trading mission, Clow believed his wife’s unfavorable report of Newton and put him to work as a slave on his plantation. When Clow went on his next voyage, he took Newton with him, and left him chained to the deck of the ship whenever he went ashore.
Another English trader moved to Clow’s island and, at age twenty-one, Newton was freed into his care. Newton was sent inland to trade for ivory, gold, jewels and slaves. In the process he began to embrace native African beliefs and even considered moon worship.
Joseph Manesty, a longtime friend of Newton’s father who had recently extended his trade to Sierra Leone, discovered John seemingly by chance, but actually in God’s providence. In order to collect the father’s reward for returning his missing son, Manesty lied to Newton by telling him a legacy of 400 pounds per year (then a considerable fortune) had been left to him in England.
Back on ship, Newton was excessively profane, blasphemous and irreverent. He ridiculed the teachings of Jesus and tried to turn people away from faith in Christ. But a sudden turning point came when the ship nearly sank in a ferocious storm. A man who went on deck in Newton’s place as John turned back to fetch a knife was instantly washed overboard and drowned. After that Newton started diligently reading the New Testament, stopped cursing altogether and eventually professed faith in Jesus Christ.
At age 23 Newton returned to Africa as first mate of a trading vessel. Incredibly, back on Clow’s island Newton began to drift from the Lord and toward African paganism once again. But when John became deathly ill he earnestly sought God’s mercy and was raised back to health.
After that Newton never again strayed from the Lord throughout the remainder of his long life. Instead, he eventually went on to faithfully serve Christ as a Gospel minister and an ardent opponent of the slave trade. (Lord willing, I intend to share those aspects of Newton’s life in future Perspectives.)
A number of excellent biographies have been written on Newton’s extraordinary life and ministry: John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken (Crossway, 2007 & 2013); “But Now I See,” The Life of John Newton, by Josiah Bull (Banner of Truth, 1998, a reprint of a work first published in 1868); The Life of John Newton, by John Newton and Richard Cecil (Baker, 1978, a reprint of a work originally published in the 1800s); John Newton, The British Slave Trader Who found “Amazing Grace,” by Catherine Swift (Bethany, 1991, a somewhat shorter account of Newton’s life).
Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie