As the eighteenth century drew to a close, you and I might have entered a little Anglican church in Olney near London. Had we entered the vestry prior to the service, we would have heard the gray-haired preacher at prayer, and the words he would repeat time and again were, "Lord, I am the least of all Thy saints. What amazing grace, that I should enter this church to preach the unsearchable riches in Christ!" For John Newton vied with the apostle Paul as to his right of being the "chief of sinners." Raising himself up, he would walk to his desk and there, on a piece of paper and written in shaky handwriting, he would read and repeat the words of the Old Testament, "Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee." As he would enter his pulpit and look down, there, pinned to the lectern, were these same words. He never sat to study or stood to preach except he was reminded that God had delivered him from bondage.
Come into his rectory on Monday morning, stand outside his living-room door, and listen to the conversation. A voice we have not heard is saying, "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." "Aye," replies the preacher, "but all in grace." The voice is that of William Cowper, England's great poet who had come to a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour as he listened spellbound to the preacher of Olney. Listen again and we hear another voice, described by those who knew it as that of the most thrilling orator in the British parliament. "Sir," he is saying, "I
will give everything I have in Christ's cause that I might rid England
of the terrible blight which scars her through the slave trade."
The speaker is William Wilberforce, deeply influenced for Christ by
the man whom God had so wondrously delivered from slavery and, later,
from being captain of a slaving ship.
Born in 1725 to a respectable sea captain and a nonconformist mother
with deep piety, John Newton was one of the most amazing characters
of the eighteenth century. His father had spent much of his early
youth in Spain at a Jesuit college; and although the school had
not implanted any of the Jesuit religious zeal in him, he entered
life with a determined stateliness that led to his being respected
among seamen. John's mother took it upon her to see that her son
was educated in the best sense. Dr. David Jennings, minister of
the Congregational church at Newstairs, Wapping, encouraged Mrs.
Newton in her ambition to prepare young John for the day when he
would go to Scotland's St. Andrews University to be educated for
the ministry. (Being a dissenter, he could not enter an English
university.) Mrs. Newton was not to see that day, for she died during
her son's seventh year and, in some ways, was saved many heartaches.
During his early years, however, John Newton was schooled by his
mother in the catechism, with the prayer that if we bring up a child
in the way of the Lord, when he is old he will not depart from it.
is profaneness?" asked Mrs. Newton.
or despising anything that is holy or that belongs to God,"
replied her son.
is the first instance of profaneness?"
make a mock of God or reproach His name, which is called blasphemy,
or if I swear or take the name of God in vain or use it in a trifling
manner without seriousness."
is the second mark of profaneness?"
should spend that time amiss which God has appointed for His own
worship and service."
Brought up in the denomination of Isaac Watts, young Newton recited
Watts' hymns by heart:
should I join with those in play
In whom I've no delight;
Who curse and swear but never pray,
Who call ill names and fight?
to hear a wanton song,
Their words offend mine ears;
I should not dare defile my tongue
With language such as theirs.
Little did the mother know that ere ten years were passed, her
son would curse and swear and sing a wanton song with a tongue that
was as vile as any on a ship at sea.
Under the care of a stepmother, John Newton missed the love and
spiritual care he had previously known. His father at sea saw little
of his son. Two incidents stand out in those years. When twelve
years of age, John was thrown from a horse and narrowly escaped
death when he missed by inches the sharp stakes of a fence. Frightened
by the incident, John Newton resolved that God must surely have
given him another opportunity of life and therefore, by God's grace,
he must resolve to live cleanly. But too soon he forgot the happening.
The second incident occurred when he was fifteen years of age.
He had arranged a trip on a rowboat with some friends to look over
a warship. Arriving at the boat slip, he found that his friends,
weary of waiting for him, had set out. As he stood cursing them
from the shore, he suddenly saw the boat turn over and his friends
struggling for their lives. One did not survive. Death had again
been so close to him. Surely God had saved him for a purpose. What
that purpose was, however, John Newton did not care to know. Instead,
he forgot this occurrence also. It was these two incidents which
later helped force him to realize the danger of memory. And this
was why he made as his special text, "Thou shalt remember that
thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed
Captain Newton decided he must do something with his son, who was
growing insolent, dreamy, and dull, and who resented deeply any
chastisement. So John Newton was sent to work in Spain as a merchant-businessman's
assistant. Unsettled and impatient, he lost his job. Captain Newton
then decided to take John aboard his own ship, but in this situation
father and son irritated each other and John again found himself
on land. It was now that the rot set in, for wandering the portside
one night, he found himself in the arms of some burly naval men and was gang-pressed onto a ship. When the ship's captain realized
he was Captain Newton's son, he was granted privileges and raised
to the position of midshipman. But young Newton had been humiliated.
The one thing which still gave him some self-respect was the love
he had for Mary Catlett, daughter of the woman who had nursed his
mother at death. It was this love which made him jump ship when
he knew he would be sailing abroad, perhaps for four to six years.
Unfortunately, the press gangs caught him and he was delivered aboard
ship. Before the full crew, he was stripped and beaten with lashes. He lost all rank and privileges, and was sent below deck to do the
meanest tasks. His heart grew bitter. From now until he was thirty
years of age and crippled by a stroke, John Newton sank to the lowest
of the lowest. One can only understand the hymn "Amazing Grace"
after reading about this part of his life. Putting aside all remembrances
of the catechism, the now-confirmed freethinker began to mock those
who thought on higher things.
Transferred from the Royal Navy to a merchant ship, he came under
the influence of a merchant named Clow who had a marriage arrangement
with a negro woman that treated Newton in a manner to which no white
man was ever subjected – so much so that Newton became the
slave of Clow's negro wife. When any white trader appeared, Newton
hid himself, ashamed to be seen in his tattered clothes and shameful
occupation as the slave of a Negro.
Then one day in 1748, a ship, The Greyhound, called at
Clow's plantation, and the captain inquired after a John Newton,
son of an old sea-captain friend of his. With a feeling of great
relief, Newton found himself being taken aboard and, on March 1,
1748, setting sail. The voyage was not an immediate return home,
as the captain still had some trading to do, so John Newton spent
his days in drinking and revelry. But something happened on that
voyage home, for God had not forgotten Newton. On the shelves of
the captain's cabin was a copy of Thomas Kempis' Thoughts.
With time on his hands, Newton took down the book and began to read:
is of short and of uncertain continuance, it highly concerns
you to look about you and take good heed how you employ it.
O hardness of men's hearts! O the wretched stupidity that fixes
their whole thoughts and cares upon the present…whereas
in truth, every work and word, and thought, ought to be so ordered
as if it were to be our last; and we instantly to die, and render
an account of it.
The shock of the words made Newton slam the book closed. He saw
again his mother and heard again the words of Isaac Watts' hymns.
In anger he jumped up and swore that for a freethinker as he was,
he could not return to these things.
A few hours later
he was facing the crisis of a sea storm and listening to the crew
wailing that all was lost. In his diary Newton says, "I went
to speak to the captain, and as I was turning from him I said, 'if
this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us,' my first cry for mercy
since my childhood." That was a crucial cry, for now he began
to think on deeper things. Could the God of mercy and grace, of
whom his mother had spoken, really show mercy to such a blasphemer
as John Newton? He was called to the helm, and for eleven hours
he steered the ship. Here he had time to think. Should the ship
sink, "he was bound for another life, but he was poorly provided
for the voyage." From that moment the blasphemy stopped. John
Newton picked up the captain's Bible and read, "if ye then,
being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how
much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them
that ask Him?" God's convicting work had begun.
Washed ashore in Ireland, Newton vowed to re-examine the Christian
faith. Looking back on that day, he wrote, "I stood in need of
an almighty Saviour, and such a One I found described in the New Testament....
I was sincerely touched with a sense of undeserving mercy I had received
in being brought safely through so many dangers."
God's mercy and grace were wider than he ever imagined, for Mary
Catlett had remained true to him and was waiting to give her hand
to him in marriage. However, Newton as yet was not finished with
the sea, nor was he as yet willing to grant mercy and grace (such
as God had granted him) to the African slaves. Offered captaincy
of the ship, The Duke of Argyll, he set out for sea as
an exchanger of liquor with white traders to woo slaves into the
holds of his ships, to make his money from souls who were but numbers
Returning home, he was led to read the book, The Life of Colonel
James Gardner, written by Philip Doddridge. Gardner had been
killed in 1745 during the Jacobite rebellion. Newton saw his own
life closely paralleled by that of Gardner, who had been converted
by reading Isaac Watts' words:
world beheld the glorious change
And did Thine hand confess;
My tongue broke out in unknown strains
And sung surprising grace.
Deeply influenced by the book, Newton began to think seriously
of his future, but again he returned to sea as captain of a new
slave ship, The African. A crisis came in November, 1754,
when at home on furlough he suffered a slight stroke. Indeed, "God
moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." It was
the end of Newton's days as a mariner. He was forced to take a job
as tide surveyor at Liverpool.
From now on, Newton fell under the influence of the great Calvinistic-Methodist
preacher, George Whitefield. On his thirty-third birthday Newton
spent eleven hours in fasting and prayer, seeking God's will for
his future as a minister of the gospel. The outcome was that he
linked himself with the established church, eventually becoming
the Anglican parish minister of Olney. It is here, in the small
rectory, that to this day we can find the words above the mantelpiece,
"Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of
Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee." He knew what redemption
meant, for he had not only been in bondage but had led many others
into it. Well indeed could he repeat the words of the apostle Paul,
". . . [ I ] am less than the least of all saints." Because
of the great depths from which he had been raised, John Newton knew,
more than most of us, how great is the grace of God. It is little
wonder that he became known as the preacher of joy, the writer who
tongue refuse to sing,
Sure the very stones would speak . .
This is the man who wrote "Amazing Grace." He knew of
it from his own experience. His epitaph of his own choosing relates
that all was of God's grace. He died in 1807; and in the parish
church of Woolnoth can be seen on his grave:
John Newton, Clerk.
Once an infidel and libertine.
The 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.
In all 16 years at Olney in Bucks, and 27 years in this Church.
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.
*From a sermon preached by Samuel McCafferty, B.D.,
minister of the Ann Street Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, Australia.
Mr. McCafferty recently completed a thesis on the Evangelicals in
England in the Nineteenth Century.