Monday, March 20, 2017

"Was Blind, But Now I See"

Tomorrow, March 21, was a tremendously important day for John Newton, a man who experienced both disgrace and amazing grace.
John Newton was born in London in July 1725. He had good start in life with a godly mother, but she died when he was six. At the age of 11 he made his first of five sea voyages with his father, a respected sea captain. When John was still 18, he was “press-ganged” into the Royal Navy—and things went from bad to worse.
Later exchanged from his warship to a slave ship, Newton wrote that during that time he was “exceedingly vile.” According to a biographer, he became such “an aggressive atheist and blasphemer that even his shipmates were shocked by his oaths.”
Clearly, by the age of 22 John Newton was a disgrace.
On March 21, 1747 (or 1748; because of a change in the calendar in 1752, both dates are found), the ship Newton was sailing on was damaged by such a strong storm he thought he was going to perish. In his anguish he cried out to God for help—and he was saved from drowning in the stormy sea.
That experience was the beginning of Newton’s religious conversion, which continued to develop over the next many years. In spite of what we would like to think about people who are converted, Newton continued on as a slaver for the next six years.
In fact, it was many years later that he began to oppose slavery.
After meeting and being very positively influenced by George Whitefield and John Wesley, perhaps the two most outstanding Christian preachers in 18th century England, Newton (at the age of 33) felt a call to the ministry in 1758.
After several rejections, in 1764 Newton was finally ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He served the Church of St. Paul and St. Peter in Olney from then until 1780 and then was rector of a church in London until his death.
In preparation for his New Year’s sermon for 1773, Newton wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” with the autobiographical words, “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see.” 
It was still more than a decade, though, before he clearly saw the sinfulness of slavery and began to oppose it.
About that time, in 1885, he met with William Wilberforce, who was 34 years his junior, and encouraged him to remain in the British Parliament and to oppose slavery there—which he did.
Partly because of Newton’s being a mentor to Wilberforce, the 2006 movie about the latter’s indefatigable efforts to abolish slavery in Great Britain is titled “Amazing Grace.”
Finally in 1788 Newton published his highly influential pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.
After Newton’s death in 1807, the following epitaph was engraved on his tombstone:

At the very end of his fine biographical book John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (2007), Jonathan Aitken concludes that Newton’s self-description “clearly demonstrated the depth of John Newton’s gratitude to God for rescuing him from disgrace and redeeming him with amazing grace” (p. 350).

It took many years for Newton to overcome his blindness to the evils of slavery and to see the humanity of every human being. So maybe there is hope for all of us who still have blind spots. Maybe there are issues about which we, too, will someday be able to say with John Newton, I once “was blind, but now I see." 


  1. In June of last year James Dobson said that Donald Trump was a “baby Christian.” That was because a Christian minister, later said to be Paula White, had just recently led Trump to “a relationship with Christ.” If that is so, could we possibly expect that DJT will perhaps gradually come to a better understanding of various ethical issues the way John Newton did about slavery?

    Perhaps, but I for one among many am sceptical about the reports of Trump's "conversion" last year, and his age, wealth, and position are greatly different from the beginning of Newton's conversion.

    Yet, as in the case of Newton, with the passage of time people can and do become able to see more clearly what is right and wrong--especially if they seek divine guidance the way Newton did. This, perhaps, should be our regular prayer for the President now.

  2. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson comments: "We must sing his hymn and his praises forever. No, rather, sing God’s praises for grace that is ours through John Newton."

  3. In 1990 Bill Moyers did a splendid special on the hymn Amazing Grace and its impact on people's lives. One favorite moment of mine was when he was talking to a former Baptist Chairman of Deacons who was sent to jail for murdering his wife. Moyers asked him when he felt he first really understood the hymn. The man replied that it was when that prison door first locked behind him. For a link to a wobbly copy of the video on YouTube (I suspect from an old VHS tape), see this link:

    1. Thanks, Craig, for sharing this link​--and the touching remark in it.

  4. Jonathan Aitken's biography of Newton is indeed excellent.
    I've heard rumours that a Japanese translation is in the works, though I can't confirm them.

    1. Yes, Dan, I also found the Aitken biography to be excellent, and I hope it will be published in Japanese translation. But perhaps it should be edited in order for it to be less detailed (and thus less lengthy).

  5. Even though I first met him more than 50 years and enjoyed being his friend when we were both Baptist missionaries in Japan, Bob Hardy, who now lives in Alabama, is the newest name on my Thinking Friends mailing list and I am pleased to share these comments from him.

    "I hadn't seen the movie until a few years ago and did not know the background of the hymn until then. His relation with the effort to abolish the slave trade should inspire and encourage all to not give up hope and trust that God is still at work to open blind eyes to all who are willing to see right in plain view much of the time."

  6. Thinking Friend Judy Trullinger, who lives in Worth County, Mo. (where I was born), wrote a fairly lengthy email about "Amazing Grace." Here are excerpts from what she wrote:

    "Leroy, at our church we’ve been singing 'Amazing Grace' with the addition of 'my chains are gone' lyrics. Have you ever heard that?

    "When Chris Tomlin was asked to write an additional part to the hymn 'Amazing Grace'--for the movie releasing that weekend about the life of British abolitionist William Wilberforce--he wasn't so sure he wanted to change the popular song.

    "After doing some research, Tomlin discovered that the hymn has withstood previous additions.
    'Even the famous last verse, "when we've been there 10,000 years" was written after John Newton wrote the poem,' he said.

  7. Thanks, Judy for sharing this. I did not know of the added lyrics, but I was glad to know about that--and to listen to Chris Tomlin sing them here:

    And, yes, there were several more verses in the original "Amazing Grace" than we usually have in our hymnals, but the last verse was added much later. In fact, it seems that it was printed in a hymn book for the first time in 1910.

  8. Since the Vatican II Council and ecumenical meetings of hymnal producers, Amazing Grace has been included, happily, in Catholic hymnals (5 verses) along with many of the Wesleys’ hymns. Thinking of presidents, I was moved watching the news not so many months ago, when President Obama initiated Amazing Grace at the community service of healing in reaction to another shooting of an African-American youth. I have the Moyers 1990 PBS video that features multiple stirring renditions by the Harlem Boys Choir, Judy Collins, Jesseye Norman, Marian Willams, Jeremy Irons (who also narrates), Jean Ritchie and Johnny Cash. It is an accessible anthem for the ages.
    My take on your question about the current president. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to acknowledge a major religious or political turn-around. Not admitting any mistake or even apologizing, much less a moral error, does not seem to be part of his cultivated nature.

    1. Larry, thanks for sharing this. I had wondered if Catholics ever sang "Amazing Grace."

      Thanks, too, for reminding me (and other readers) about Pres. Obama singing "Amazing Grace." That was quite special, I thought -- and something we are not likely to hear from DJT!

      Thanks, too for responding to the question I raised in the first comment posted above. I expected to hear from a few people people about that, but you are the first and only one so far to mention it. I think you analysis of the situation is probably correct.

  9. Regardless of how it might apply to DJT (see the first comment above), in the Epilogue of his book on Newton, biographer Aitken suggests "four lessons that can be counted as the early part of Newton's legacy."

    "The first lesson that any new believer can learn from Newton is that a sinner is not transformed into a Christ-centered soul by a single conversion experience but by the long, unremitting, and courageous effort that conversion begins" (p. 352).