The Greyhound had been thrashing about in the north Atlantic storm for over a week. Its canvas sails were ripped, and the wood on one side of the ship had been torn away and splintered. The sailors had little hope of survival, but they mechanically worked the pumps, trying to keep the vessel afloat. On the eleventh day of the storm, sailor John Newton was too exhausted to pump, so he was tied to the helm and tried to hold the ship to its course. From one o'clock until midnight he was at the helm.
With the storm raging fiercely, Newton had time to think. His life seemed as ruined and wrecked as the battered ship he was trying to steer through the storm. Since the age of eleven he had lived a life at sea. Sailors were not noted for the refinement of their manners, but Newton had a reputation for profanity, coarseness, and debauchery which even shocked many a sailor.
John Newton was known as "The Great Blasphemer." He sank so low at one point that he was even a servant to slaves in Africa for a brief period. His mother had prayed he would become a minister and had early taught him the Scriptures and Isaac Watts' Divine Songs for Children. Some of those early childhood teachings came to mind now. He remembered Proverbs 1:24-31, and in the midst of that storm, those verses seemed to confirm Newton in his despair:
Because I have called, and ye refused . . . ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also laughed at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh: when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish come upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer.
John Newton had rejected his mother's teachings and had led other sailors into unbelief. Certainly he was beyond hope and beyond saving, even if the Scriptures were true. Yet, Newton's thoughts began to turn to Christ. He found a New Testament and began to read. Luke 11:13 seemed to assure him that God might still hear him: "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."
That day at the helm, March 21, 1748, was a day Newton remembered ever after, for "On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters." Many years later, as an old man, Newton wrote in his diary of March 21, 1805: "Not well able to write; but I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer, and praise." Only God's amazing grace could and would take a rude, profane, slave-trading sailor and transform him into a child of God. Newton never ceased to stand in awe of God's work in his life.
Though Newton continued in his profession of sailing and slave-trading for a time, his life was transformed. He began a disciplined schedule of Bible study, prayer, and Christian reading and tried to be a Christian example to the sailors under his command. Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul provided much spiritual comfort, and a fellow-Christian captain he met off the coast of Africa guided Newton further in his Christian faith.
Newton left slave-trading and took the job of tide surveyor at Liverpool, but he began to think he had been called to the ministry. His mother's prayers for her son were answered, and in 1764, at the age of thirty-nine, John Newton began forty-three years of preaching the Gospel of Christ.
John and his beloved wife Mary (At the end of his life John would write that their love "equaled all that the writers of romance have imagined") moved to the little market town of Olney. He spent his mornings in Bible study and his afternoons in visiting his parishioners. There were regular Sunday morning and afternoon services as well as meetings for children and young people. There was also a Tuesday evening prayer meeting which was always well attended.
The world's most famous hymn
For the Sunday evening services, Newton often composed a hymn which developed the lessons and Scripture for the evening. In 1779, two hundred and eighty of these were collected and combined with sixty-eight hymns by Newton's friend and parishioner, William Cowper, and published as the Olney Hymns. The most famous of all the Olney Hymns, "Faith's Review and Expectation," grew out of David's exclamation in I Chronicles 17:16-17. We know it today as "Amazing Grace." Several other of the Olney hymns by Newton continue in use today, including "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds," and "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken."
Rector reveals evils of slavery
In 1779 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. His ministry included not only the London poor and the merchant class but also the wealthy and influential. William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament and a prime mover in the abolition of slavery, was strongly influenced by John Newton's life and preaching. Newton's Thoughts on the African Slave Trade, based on his own experiences as a slave trader, was very important in securing British abolition of slavery. Missionaries William Carey and Henry Martyn also gained strength from Newton's counsel.
Newton lived to be eighty-two years old and continued to preach and have an active ministry until beset by fading health in the last two or three years of his life. Even then, Newton never ceased to be amazed by God's grace and told his friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior."
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.