Perhaps the most famous, best-loved hymn ever written is “Amazing Grace”, penned by Anglican clergyman John Newton in late 1772 for a prayer meeting. The story of how God brought this hardened sea captain to a knowledge of saving grace is indeed remarkable!
Born in 1725 in London, England to a shipping merchant father and devout Christian mother who died of tuberculosis when he was not quite seven years old, John joined his father on a ship as an apprentice when he was only eleven. A headstrong, disobedient young man, he denounced his faith while still in his teens, joined the Royal Navy for a time and, after deserting, joined the crew of a slave ship where he began his career in slave trading.
After openly mocking the ship’s captain, creating obscene poems and songs about him that became popular with the crew, and entering into violent disagreements with several colleagues onboard, he was ordered to be chained like the slaves the ship carried, starved almost to death and imprisoned at sea. He was then enslaved and forced to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone in West Africa for several months until his father intervened and one of his ship captain friends picked him up on another ship bound for England.
While aboard this ship called the “Greyhound”, Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. Even among the sailors, known for their foul-mouthed cursing, Newton was admonished several times not only for using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery. In March 1748, while the “Greyhound” was in the North Atlantic, a violent storm came up, so rough that it swept overboard a crew member who was standing where Newton had been moments before. After hours of manually pumping water from the ship’s decks, expecting to capsize at any moment, John Newton turned to the captain and said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” During the next eleven hours he continued to ponder his divine challenge.
About two weeks later, after the battered ship and starving crew landed in Ireland, Newton remembered a book he had read aboard ship, The Christian’s Pattern, a summary of the 15th Century The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and his uttered phrase in a moment of desperation. He began to ask if he was worthy of God’s mercy and grace or in any way redeemable as he had not only neglected his faith but directly opposed it, mocking others who showed theirs, deriding and denouncing God as a myth. He began to believe that God had sent him a profound message and had begun to work through him.
Although John Newton pointed to this time in his life as his conversion, he continued in the slave trade through several voyages up the rivers of Africa, now as a captain, procuring slaves offered for sale in larger ports and subsequently transporting them to North America. Two days before he was to embark on his fourth slave-trading expedition, a mysterious illness temporarily paralyzed him. His doctors advised him not to sail. Even though he was subsequently promised a position as a ship’s captain with cargo unrelated to slavery, he never sailed again. The replacement captain of the ship he was to command when he became ill was later murdered in a shipboard slave uprising. God’s hand was upon John Newton!
He was only thirty-years-old when he ended his slave trading career. Teaching himself Latin, Greek and theology, he and his new wife, Mary, took a pastorate in Olney, England, after the Earl of Dartmouth, impressed with Newton’s story of his conversion and renunciation of the slave trade, sponsored him for ordination. Newton soon became friends with people like Charles and John Wesley, who had encouraged Newton to go into the clergy and was the founder of the Methodist Church; George Whitfield, a famous Church of England evangelistic preacher; and William Cowper, a gifted hymn writer (“There Is a Fountain” among others). Newton and Cowper began weekly prayer meetings in 1768 and attempted to present a poem or hymn at each one. “Amazing Grace” was probably used in a prayer meeting for the first time on January 1, 1773. In 1779 a collection of the poems these two men had written for their services in Olney was bound and published anonymously under title “Olney Hymns”. Newton contributed 280 of the 348 texts and titled his best known poem, “I Chronicles 17:16-17, Faith’s Review and Expectation” with the first line: “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)”, no doubt thinking back on his remarkable conversion from a sinful life of shame! The entire first stanza, speaking of a “wretch like me”, undoubtedly expresses his regret over years spent in the slave trade.
Newton soon joined forces with a young man named William Wilberforce, the British member of Parliament who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire which culminated in the Slave Trade Act 1807, and became an ardent and outspoken abolitionist.
Years later, in 1847, William Walker assigned Newton’s words to a traditional song named “New Britain”, and published the song in the United States in his songbook, “Southern Harmony”. It was an immediate success and became enormously popular all over the country. A new verse, not written by Newton, was added by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her best-selling 1852 anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which had been passed down orally in African-American communities for at least 50 years:
When we’ve been there ten-thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.
“Amazing Grace” continues to be an emblem of the Christian faith today, as well as a symbol of hope during tragedies like the Civil War, the persecution of various groups such as African-American slaves, the Cherokees who sang it while on their “Trail of Tears” as a way of coping with their ongoing battle, and all of us who suffer in one way or another. If it were not for God’s “Amazing Grace” where would any of us be?