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.
RESCUED BY GRACE
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.
REFLECTING ON GRACE
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.”
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:
ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE
A SERVANT OF SLAVES IN AFRICA
BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST
PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED
AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH
HE HAD LONG LABOURED TO DESTROY
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."