THE LIFE OF JOHN NEWTON (1725-1807)

"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life." (1 Timothy 1:15b-16)
John Newton is remembered most as the composer of "Amazing Grace." An eighteenth-century ship captain involved in the slave trade, Newton was touched by the grace of God. He became a preacher, hymnwriter, and a powerful spokesman against the slavery in England. Throughout the world, Christians and non-Christians alike are struck by the awesome simplicity of the hymn that obviously did not come from a mind but from a heart--a heart that knew about amazing grace.

First, a young spaceman.

John Newton Jr. was born on July 24, 1725, the only son of John and Elizabeth Newton. His father, Captain John Newton Sr., was a man of the sea. He was respected by his neighbors and fellow captains because of his strict principles and discipline. He treated his son like a sailor. Little John had to stand at attention until told to sit. He could not speak unless spoken to. When John's father went to sea, he would disappear without a trace for months or even years at a time. When John was seven years old, his father returned from a long voyage. He walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. But no one was home. He found out that his wife had died, and little John had been living at a neighbor's house for the last nine months. Captain John Newton quickly found another woman, got married, and went off to sea again, leaving his son to be raised by an indifferent stepmother. John Newton's real mother took care of him for only six years. But in that short time she gave him a solid foundation. She took him to a Bible-believing church and planted simple faith. She taught him to write, to multiply, and to read some Latin. She gave him a love for music. But after she died, his situation changed. He was shipped off to boarding school. John was bright and by second grade reached the top of his class. But at the age of eleven his father pulled him out of school, put him on board his ship and set sail for the Mediterranean. John experienced hard work and harsh discipline. His father was determined to mold him into a mighty man of the sea. On shore, the teenage boy ran wild. Once he fell off a horse and narrowly missed being killed. Another time he was involved in a boating accident and saw some of his friends drown. After these encounters with death, John Newton turned pious and and started to pray. But after a few months his piety wore off and he returned to a life of mischief. Narrowly escaping being killed is a recurring theme in the life of John Newton. Later in life these events gave him confidence that God was with him and wanted to use him for a divine purpose. At seventeen John was a vague young man with no plans or ambitions. His father wanted to secure him a job to establish him as a seaman. But John wandered around town acting more like a spaceman. One day he found a book that seemed to be about religion because it used the word "God." But the author was a deist and the book undermined his faith. The point of the book was relativism, that a man ought to follow his own thoughts and desires. To a young man with many thoughts and plenty of desires this sounded pretty good. John's father found him an opportunity: John was to go to Jamaica to manage a plantation, overseeing the slaves and producing sugar. If John did well he could become rich, return to England after a few years and be set for life. Just before he was to leave for Jamaica, he got a letter from one of his mother's old friends who invited him to come and visit. He dropped in and saw her fourteen year old daughter, a girl named Polly Catlett, and he instantly fell in love. The family was kind and told him to stay as long as he liked. Stricken by love, he stayed for three weeks, forgetting that he was supposed to go to Jamaica. The boat left without him and his father was furious. His father pronounced a punishment: John must go to sea as a common sailor. John agreed and went to sea for a year. When John came back, his father got him another position on a ship, this time as a petty officer. He was supposed to leave in a couple of days. But he went to visit Polly Catlett, stayed there too long, and missed the boat again. His father tried hard to get him another job. But there was a war brewing between England and France in 1744. In order to build up the Royal Navy, the king's miltary police went out to find young men and draft them into service. John's father warned him not to go near the river, because the police were there rounding up young men. But John didn't listen, and tried to cross the river to see Polly Catlett. John was caught and was joined the navy.

Second, the prodigal son.

Navy life was hard. The new sailors were treated like slaves. Through his father's influence, John was promoted and became an officer. On board the ship was another officer who started to have philosphical discussions with him. This man was an atheist, a freethinker, who said that religion is a hoax and death is the end of everything. He said man should renounce God and indulge his own feelings. These words and ideas poisoned John's mind. He renounced the gospel of Jesus Christ and began to persecute anyone who declared a religious faith. He met a young Christian named Job Lewis who was living a clean life. John Newton became his deprogrammer, destroying his faith and leading him into all kinds of sin. While John was deepening in atheism, he still idolized Polly Catlett and dreamed of marrying her. Suddenly his fanatasy world fell into ruins. His ship received orders to sail to Africa. The mission was to last five years. The captain granted him leave for 24 hours. John jumped on a horse, rode off to see Polly, and stayed for several days. When he returned the captain was angry, but did not have him arrested. Soon after, John again acted very stupidly. The captain ordered him to go to shore to collect some supplies. Acting on impulse, he tried to run away. Soon he was caught and brought back to the ship. If charged with desertion, he could have been sentenced to death. But the captain was merciful and did not treat him as a deserter. John was stripped and tied and lashed with a whip. Removed from the officers' ranks, he was assigned hard physical labor. But John Newton was not humbled. He grew proud, arrogant, and angrier by the day. One day before the ship sailed for Africa, God showed mercy toward him. By accident, he overheard that the navy was supposed to transfer two sailors to civilian merchant ship. John begged his officers to send him to the other ship. Perhaps because he was such a troublemaker, the captain agreed. Within minutes John received his discharge and became a civilian. John was transferred to a slave ship involved in the Triangle Trade between Europe, Africa, and the West Indies. In England they loaded the ship with Western goods and carried them to Africa, where the goods were traded for slaves. The slaves were taken to Jamaica and given to plantations in return for sugar and rum; the sugar and rum were brought back to England and sold for a profit. Newton became involved in the brutal business of selling human life. A full ship carried 275 slaves. About two-thirds of the slaves were male, and one-third were female. Most were young and able-bodied. They were chained naked in the hull of the ship, like books on a shelf, packed as tightly as possible so that no space would be wasted. The sailors routinely used whatever woman they wanted. At the age of twenty--a militant atheist away from home with no friends or family to restrain him--he began to give in to every lustful desire. Newton was insolent and resented all authority. With his natural musical ability, he composed and sang hymns to mock the captain and the ship's officers. He was a master of foul language, inventing new curses and blasphemies against God so vile that they could shock the ears of even the most hardened sailor. He became a God-hater and sin-inventor. On the coast of Africa, John Newton left the ship and became assistant manager of a slave-trading post. The owner had an African mistress who hated Newton from the start. Once Newton became sick while the owner was away on a journey. The mistress took control and began to mistreat him. While he had a burning fever, she confined him to a hut and withheld food and water. When the owner returned, Newton complained of his mistreatment. The owner grew furious and called him a liar. He accused Newton of cheating him and bound him in ankle chains. Newton was put in solitary confinement. He was fed garbage. He was kept outside half naked in the cold and rain. He was forced to do backbreaking labor. They treated him worse than a slave. Like the prodigal son, he longed to eat the scraps that were fed to the animals. But no one gave him any. Desperate with hunger he ate roots out of the ground, but they only made him vomit. In Jesus' parable, the prodigal son came to his senses and repented before God. But John Newton would not repent. After almost one year, another slave trader saw him and took pity on him. The trader pulled him out of that plantation and gave him food and clothing. He made John Newton his business partner. Within three months business was doing well, and Newton began to enjoy Africa. He did as he pleased, with no laws to restrain him. He took out his lustful desires on whatever woman he wanted. He lived like a king, surrounded by slaves over whom he exercised absolute power. A few months later, a ship from England came along. The captain of the ship knew his father and offered to take him back home to England. He said no; he had made up his mind to stay in Africa for the rest of his life. But suddenly, out of the recesses of his mind, he remembered Polly Catlett. On a whim he decided to go back home to see if he could still marry her.

Third, amazing grace.

Before returning to England, the ship sailed down the African coast for more than a year. On board John was a troublemaker. He had several close encounters with death. He suffered bouts of fever. Once he got drunk and almost fell overboard. But John didn't care. For amusement, he read a few Christian books and scoffed at their contents. In March of 1748, the ship headed back to England through the North Atlantic. Sitting in the cabin, John Newton read a few lines from the famous book by Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. The lines spoke of the terror of God's judgement. "What if this were real?" John thought. Becoming uncomfortable, he pushed the thought out of his mind and went to sleep. In the middle of the night he was awakened by a violent crash. Water poured into the cabin. Someone yelled, "The ship is sinking!" John climbed on deck to see what was happening. The captain told him to go back down and fetch a knife. He obeyed. Seconds later, a wave swept over the deck right where he had been standing and washed a man out to sea. The ship was caught in a gale hundreds of miles from land. The situation was extremely dangerous. John and another sailor manned a pump. While they were pumping, John tried to cheer up the other sailor, saying that in a few days they would be joking about this over a glass of wine. The other man shook his head. "No," he said, "it's too late," and he began to cry. The reality of death began to seep into John's mind: What would it be like to die? A few hours later, John spoke to the captain to offer some advice on how to save the ship. Turning away, he said, "The Lord have mercy on us." Suddenly he was struck by his own words. For the first time in years, he had spoken the Lord's name without swearing or blaspheming. He had actually prayed! Then he thought, "What mercy can there be for me?" He stumbled back to the water pump. As he pumped up and down, the creaking sound began to remind him of some Bible verses he once knew. Verses from Proverbs chapter 1 filled his mind: Because I have called and ye refused, I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at naught all my counsel, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh. (Prov 1:24-26, KJV) John Newton pumped until noon the next day. When he became exhausted, the captain ordered him to steer the ship. For eleven hours he stood on deck, holding the wheel and thinking about his past. Scripture verses came into his mind about the certainty of death and God's eternal judgement. He was certain that he had committed the unpardonable sin. At six p.m. he heard the news that the ship was free of water; they were going to survive. But John was deeply shaken. He began to pray, "Lord, have mercy on me." He began to remember the Bible's teachings about the cross of Jesus, who died to give eternal life to those who would put their trust in him. That night he collapsed onto his bed. The next morning he was shocked by the attitudes of his fellow sailors. Despite being rescued from certain death, they went about business as usual, showing no remorse or gratitude toward God who had spared their lives. Most of the ship's stores of food had washed out to sea. Some sails had blown away, so the ship's progress was slow. They rationed the little food that was left, subsisting on a near-starvation diet. The ship limped along for almost a month. John Newton prayed and read the New Testament. But years of atheism and skepticism made it impossible for him to accept the gospel at face value. He was unable to just believe. But he came across the words of Luke 11:13: "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" So Newton prayed to receive the Holy Spirit, to enlighten his mind so that he would know whether or not the Bible was true. Gradually and surely, he began to put his trust in the God of the Bible. Twenty-seven days after the storm, just as the crew consumed the last bit of food and water, the ship reached the coast of Ireland. On shore, he attended a church service and committed his life to Jesus. He experienced no excitement or great feelings of joy, but his soul was at peace. While the ship was being repaired, he wrote a letter to his father to ask his forgiveness. John Newton Sr. had been convinced that his son had drowned at sea. When he received the letter he was overjoyed. But the old sea captain was about to travel to Canada and would not be in England to welcome his son. John Newton never saw his father again.

Fourth, a Christian slave trader.

Back in England, John learned that Polly Catlett was still unmarried. John, at the age of twenty-three, felt like a old man; the weight of his sinful past hung like chains around his neck. Polly, who was twenty, represented the purity of a life that he could only vaguely remember. John had no savings and could not afford to get married. So he took a job as the first mate of a slave ship and set out again for Africa. On board the ship, he fell into many of his old habits. He stopped praying and reading the Bible. When they arrived in Africa and slaves came aboard, his mind and body were filled with lust. He could not control his urges. He went below deck and raped a girl. Then he fell into a deep spiritual depression. He raped another and another. After a month he was hit by a violent fever. As pain racked his body, he came to his senses and repented with bitter tears. Kneeling down in prayer, he made no vows or promises to God. He simply cried out for God's mercy to rescue him from his sin. Along the African coast, John commanded the longboat that rowed up and down the rivers to collect the captured slaves. One day, for no apparent reason, the captain told John to stay on board the ship and sent someone else in his place. John asked why, and the captain said there no particular reason; a little thought just came into his head that someone else should go that day. That night the longboat sank and Newton's replacement drowned. God had spared his life again. After a year John returned to England and asked Polly to marry him. She said, "No, and don't ask me again." But John didn't listen. He asked her again and she said, "Okay." One month later they were married. The day after the wedding, John woke up in a panic, thinking, "What have I done?" Marriage was not what he had expected. The woman whom he had idolized turned out to be an ordinary human being. But John and his new wife soon adjusted to married life and became very happy together. She was not a sincere Christian, and their marriage had no spiritual component. They did not pray together. John enjoyed a honeymoon life but drifted apart from God. One night he and his horse fell into a pit. He should have been killed. But he walked away without injury. A few months later, in need of money, John again went out to sea--this time as a captain. The crew was unruly, much like John had been a few years earlier; they made his life difficult with their fighting and insubordination. When Newton saw the suffering of the slaves on board his ship, he felt pity and twinges of sorrow. He did small things to make them more comfortable. But it did not occur to him that the slave trade might be wrong. No one in England, Christian or not, had ever questioned the morality of the slave trade. It was simply a way to earn money, as honorable as any other business. So John Newton did his best to be a Christian slave trader. He prohibited swearing and fornication on his ship. He held regular Sunday worship services. Several times he narrowly escaped death from mutinies and uprisings. He enforced discipline on his crew but would not punish the slaves harshly. When he treated the slaves with kindness, to his surprise they became obedient and kind in return. On Newton's third voyage as a captain, he met a sailor from his past: Job Lewis. Nine years earlier, when Newton was a militant atheist, he did his best to corrupt this young man's character and destroy his faith. Now Lewis was a hardened sinner, "exceedingly profane" and growing worse every day. Newton felt deep sorrow and was determined to repair the damage he had done. He hired Lewis as an officer on his ship. But Lewis became a thorn in his side. Lewis flew into violent fits of rage. He drank heavily and indulged his lusts. The wild lifestyle took its toll, and a fever came over him. Soon he was dying. On his deathbed a terror swept over him: "I'm going to hell!" he cried, but he would not ask for God's mercy. He died and went to God's judgement seat unrepentant. Newton was deeply shaken. He prayed that God would give him wisdom and ability to help men like Lewis in the future. He also prayed for God to take him out of the slave trade, the business that he his soul had grown to hate.

Fifth, quietly influential.

Back in England Newton tried to leave the slave trade. But there seemed to be no way. For nine years it was the only business he had known. He had to support his family. But there were no jobs available. Reluctantly, he agreed to command a slave ship one more time. Two days before he was to set sail, he dropped to the ground and for an hour lay in a coma. There was no medical explanation for what happened. But doctors, fearing for his health, ordered him not to sail. Another captain took his place. On that voyage, the ship was lost at sea. God saved his life again. The company gave him a sick leave for several months to be sure of his recovery. John studied Latin and read his Bible. In June of 1755, the whole city of London was in a stir. George Whitefield, the famous Methodist preacher, was returning from the United States. Someone who knew John Newton offered to introduce him to George Whitefield. He met Whitefield in London, and the world-renowned preacher gave him a front-row ticket to his next Sunday appearance. As Newton listened to Whitefield, his soul caught fire and longed to serve God with his whole heart. Newton's wife Polly had become ill with a strange condition that doctors could not diagnose. She grew worse and John feared that she was dying. He prayed for her health but also committed her to God. Without any warning, someone suddenly offered him a job as a customs officer in Liverpool. God had provided a way out of the slave trade. John accepted the position and went to Liverpool, leaving his wife in the care of relatives. One month later, George Whitefield came to preach at Liverpool, and Newton met him again. They became friends. People began to call him "Little Whitefield." Soon after, John received a letter from his wife. She said that had prayed from her heart and put her trust in God. The sickness quickly left her, and she moved to Liverpool to join her husband. Now that John Newton had a stable job, he could finally settle down and be a family man. But his wife could not bear children, possibly because of some veneral disease transmitted to her from her husband's past sinful life. The Newtons opened their home to show hospitality and Christian love to many friend and strangers. They were devout, drawing criticism from their neighbors who called them Methodists. As the Great Awakening spread over the land, John Newton was often invited to share his testimony at churches and revival meetings. He was an inexperienced and poor speaker. But his testimony was so sincere that many hearts were moved. Friends began to say that he should be ordained as a pastor. Through personal study he had already mastered Latin and New Testament Greek. He had studied theology and was starting to learn Hebrew. But he had no formal education or diploma. He struggled whether to be ordained in the Church of England, which was political and often hostile to the revival sweeping the country, or to become the pastor of an Independent church. His wife convinced him that staying in the church of England would give more freedom to preach and greater access to God's flock. So he tried to be ordained in the Church of England. They turned him down, because he had no college diploma. But he tried a second time and was successful. In 1764, at the age of 39, John Newton became a pastor in the small town of Olney. Newton was not an articulate preacher. But he spoke from his heart and people were moved. He began weeknight Bible studies and prayer meetings at his church. He even began a children's worship service, fifteen years before the start of the famous Sunday school movement. Children loved to hear his stories of the sea. Unlike most pastors, he did not stay in his office and wait for people to come to him. He went out to visit his parishioners regularly. Instead of dressing like a clergyman, he wore his sea-captain's jacket. He made friends with the poor and needy. Unlike the famous preachers of his day, John Newton did not have a high profile. But he was prayerful and quietly influential. Drawing on his love for music, he began to compose and publish hymns. He wrote a new hymn every week for his weeknight prayer meeting. In letters to friends he told the story of how God had mercy on him, changing him from a slave trader to a shepherd of God's flock. These letters were collected and published as a book. Many people who, because of peer pressure, were afraid to go to revival meetings and listen to the famous preachers, read Newton's life story and were moved to accept the gospel of Jesus. William Cowper, a famous poet and hymn writer, moved into town and became his next-door neighbor. Cowper, despite his devotion to God, suffered from chronic bouts of depression and mental illness. He had repeatedly attempted suicide. John Newton became his close friend and they wrote hymns together. In the 1760's and 1770's, the Christian church was being divided by denominational and theological arguments, such as the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. John Newton stood apart from arguments and squabbles, proclaiming with simplicity the gospel of Jesus Christ. A pastor at a neighboring village, who hardly believed in the divinity of Christ, was befriended by Newton and became a sincere believer through him. As John's reputation spread, many people throughout England wrote him letters, to which he did not fail to respond. He wrote literally thousands of letters to plant faith and encourage believers throughout the land. He became a founding member of the London Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society, and the British and Foreign Bible Society. He worked behind the scenes to take the gospel to Africa, to free the people he had worked so hard to enslave. John Newton did not seek out political battles. But over the years he grew in conviction that the slave trade was a moral evil. As a former slave trader, he was in a unique position to tell the full story of the cruelty and misery generated by that business. He wrote a short book, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, that helped awaken the national conscience. In 1788 he was called to testify before a Parliamentary committee on the slave trade. But there was another, more important, way that God used him behind the scenes to close that ugly chapter of English history. During his time at Olney, a young boy of eight came to hear him preach. The boy's name was Willian Wilberforce. Wilberforce was absorbed by Newton's preaching and stories. He grew up to become a brilliant statesman. By the age of 23 Wilberforce was an influential member of Parliament. But he had put aside his Christian faith and was deeply troubled in his soul. In 1784 Wilberforce came to see John Newton at night. He had not seen Newton since he was a boy. But he didn't know where else to turn. He came in secret and poured out his heart to Newton. He wanted to surrender his life to Christ, but didn't know what to do. Specifically, he didn't know whether God was calling him to remain in Parliament or to resign and join the clergy. John Newton prayed with him and encouraged him to stay in Parliament, thinking that perhaps God had raised him up to serve in that position. Wilberforce accepted Newton's counsel, and over the next twenty years he became the primary instrument by which the slave trade in England was abolished. No one knows precisely when or how John Newton composed "Amazing Grace." The brief poem about God's grace, God's faithfulness to protect, and man's hope in the kingdom of God says more about the John Newton than everything I have written. May God give us the knowledge of his amazing grace. May God use us as prayerful and influential people to serve his purpose at the end of this twentieth century.

REFERENCES

Pollock, J. (1981) Amazing Grace. Harper & Row, New York. Newton, J. (1750-54) The Journal of a Slave Trader, with Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. Martin, B. and Spurrell, M., eds. (1962), Epworth Press, London. Letters of John Newton (1774-81), reprinted (1960) by Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA.