Eleven-year-old John Newton struggled under the weight of the coiled rope as he helped get the ship ready for departure. "Aren't you too little for such a big job?" the deck hand asked as he began to ready the sails. "No sir, I'm strong for my age," John replied as he continued his task. "But don't your mom and dad mind you being out at sea?" continued the curious deck hand. "No," John answered again. "My mother is dead and my father is the captain of the ship!"
John Newton's mother died just before he turned seven years old. In her short time with her son, Mrs. Newton eagerly taught him God's word and prayed that he would become a minister when he grew up. Unfortunately, in the years that followed, no one would have guessed that John Newton would ever be a preacher.
After his mother's death John's life took a turn that would lead him in a very different direction. While his father, the sea captain, spent months at sea, John was left in the care of his new stepmother. She really didn't want John around and he was left to go his own way. All that freedom was too much for John. His behavior grew worse and worse until finally his father began taking him on voyages to keep him out of trouble. Of course, the rough sailors did not provide the good influence John needed. By the time he returned from sea, he was even more drawn to shady characters and rough living. John seemed to have forgotten all that his mother had taught him in his early years.
"Hey you," called the voice of a strange man John had seen staring at him earlier that night. John took off running down the darkened alley as fast as he could. His father had warned him to beware of the gangs of navy officers who captured young men, forcing them to serve on war ships. As John ran, several men closed in on him, tackling and then cuffing him. The men dragged John, kicking and screaming to a ship. He was thrown into a dark hole where he found himself with a group of other unfortunate young men. This time at sea made John an even angrier young man.
There is No God
By his early twenties, John Newton had become a rebellious person. Even the toughest sailors, known for their cursing and drinking, were sickened by John's bad attitude and foul language. He refused to follow the captain's orders and constantly made fun of anyone who believed in God. When John remembered what his mother taught him, he would try to be good, but his efforts would only last a short time.
One day while at sea, John began reading a book which left him convinced there was no God. At first John was afraid not to believe in God, but over time he began to like the freedom of not having to worry about answering to God someday for his doing wrong.
God, Please Help Me
One day during a long voyage, a fierce storm struck. The ship lurched and rocked as the violent storm raged. Climbing the huge waves, the boat plunged time after time, crashing into the ocean on the other side. With each fall, more and more of the ship's contents spilled into the raging water. As an experienced sailor, John Newton had ridden out many a fierce storm before, but never had he come this close to death. As the ship began to break into pieces and water rushed in everywhere, one sailor washed overboard. A few hours later when John faced certain death, he began to recall Bible verses his mother had taught him. John, who couldn't swim, heard himself cry, "Lord, have mercy on us." But then he thought, "What mercy can there be for a wretch like me"? As John began to tell God he was sorry for turning away from Him and for doing so much wrong, he began to feel peace in his soul.
When the storm ended, John realized that God had saved him from a sure death. He immediately went in search of a Bible and asked Jesus to save his soul as well. The Bible, which he had made so much fun of, now gave him the guidance he needed. John Newton became a Christian. The other sailors noticed that John no longer used foul language and he did not make fun of Christians. He didn't even get upset when others teased him.
The Slave Trade
John Newton made many trips to Africa to buy slaves, who were sold in the United States and the Caribbean. Even after becoming a Christian, Newton did not see anything wrong with slavery, like most others during his time. Later Newton did begin to see that slavery was wrong. He and a young politician named William Wilberforce joined others who spoke out against the practice. In time their efforts led to a law which banned slavery in England.
Remember when as a little boy John Newton's mother wanted him to be a preacher? Well, it came true later in his life. He became the pastor of a church in Olney, England, and later a church in London. He also traveled around England telling about his adventures at sea and how God saved a wretch like him.
Besides preaching, John and his best friend wrote a new hymn for the church service every week. Can you imagine that, a new hymn every week! In all, Newton wrote almost 300 hymns. The best known of them is "Amazing Grace," which has become one of the favorite hymns of all time. When he was writing the hymn, he remembered the storm in which he almost died. "Amazing grace," he wrote, "that saved a wretch like me!" He remembered how wonderful it was to feel right with God at last. "How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed," it says.
Life is full of dangers like that storm. John's hymn reminds us of God's kindness in bringing us safely through difficult times. It reminds us of His mercy and grace to us when we didn't deserve help, and His good promises to us for the future--forgiveness and eternal life.
Make It Real! Questions to help you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.
- John Newton spent much of his childhood free to do as he pleased. He later spent some of his adult years in a form of slavery. Which of these experiences do you think caused him to become the most hardened?
- How is John Newton's story similar to the Biblical account of Jonah? How did their near-death experience affect each of them?
- Are you surprised that even though John Newton had been captured and made a slave of a Navy ship, he still participated in the cruel slave trade? Why do you think it took so many years for him to change his mind about slavery?
- Can you write your own new verse to "Amazing Grace"? What personal experiences would you reference in your verse?
- Suggested reading:
- Ten Boys Who Changed the World by Irene Howat (Christian Focus Publications)
- The Runaway's Revenge by Dave and Neta Jackson (Trailblazer Books, Bethany House)