John Newton, Amazing Grace

circa 1775: John Newton (1725-1807), English clergyman and religious poet,
circa 1775: John Newton (1725-1807), English clergyman, hymn-writer and abolitionist.

As a young sailor John Newton was prone to drunkenness, profanity, and myriad forms of irresponsible behavior. He converted to Christianity in his mid-twenties yet accepted a position as captain of a slave ship, sometimes conducting Bible studies onboard. After leaving the slave trade he became a pre-eminent figure in the Anglican Church, well known for his sermons, letters, and over two hundred hymns, including the venerable ‘Amazing Grace.’ In later years he became a prominent figure in the British abolitionist movement and a powerful weapon in the fight that would end the slave trade and, ultimately, slavery itself in the British Empire.


John Newton was born on July 24, 1725.  He was an only child. His father, trained at a Jesuit college, was involved in the Mediterranean trade, and his mother was a devout Christian and adhered to the theology of the Dissenters [1].  She taught him to read by the time he was three, and trained him in the Dissenter’s theology. She however suffered from poor health and died of tuberculosis just before John’s seventh birthday [2].

John was sent away to boarding school and by eleven went to sea with his father. At fifteen he was sent to apprentice on another ship but was soon returned to his father. ‘[B]y this time, my sinful propensities had gathered strength by habit:  I was very wicked, and therefore very foolish; and, being my own enemy, I seemed determined that nobody should be my friend…’ [3].

When his father retired in 1742 young John had sailed with him on six occasions [4].

In that year Newton met Mary Catlett, the daughter of a distant cousin, and was so smitten he intentionally missed a trip to Jamaica, which his father had arranged, in order to be with the thirteen year old girl.

By 1743 Newton had been pressed into the service of the British Navy as a midshipman (an apprentice officer) [5]. In December 1744 Newton found himself in the bad graces of his captain, after he used a day’s leave to see his love, Mary Catlett [6].

On one occasion while the Harwich, the ship on which Newton was assigned, was docked at the southern city of Plymouth, he was tasked with preventing his fellow sailors from deserting. Instead of fulfilling his duties he left the ship in an attempt to implore his father to remove him from the upcoming voyage to the East Indies.  He was soon caught and returned to the ship, where he was placed irons, publicly stripped and whipped. His rank was reduced and his shipmates were forbidden from speaking to him [7].

This marked the beginning of a period of misery and despair for the young sailor. ‘I could perceive nothing but darkness and misery. I think no case, except that of a conscience wounded by the wrath of God, could be more dreadful than mine’ [8].

During the Harwich’s trip to Madeira, an island in the North Atlantic, Newton describes himself as prey to the ‘gloomiest of thoughts’, alternating between suicide and the murder of the ship’s captain.  In addition, he writes, ‘I was capable of anything. I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor…the least sensibility of conscience’ [9].

Newton was then ‘traded’ to a merchant ship bound for Guinea, on the west coast of Africa. Now among sailors who knew nothing of his religious background, he felt released to be his true (libertine) self. He ‘sinned with a high hand’, and made it his goal to ‘tempt and seduce others to the same actions and pursuits at every opportunity. He made up goading and disrespectful songs about the captain and his vessel…’ [10].

Onboard Newton made friends with a man referred to as ‘Clow’ (sometimes spelled ‘Cowl’) who was part owner of the ship, a plantation owner in Sierra Leone, and a slave trader. Newton ‘persuaded’ him to take him on as a servant and an apprentice [11]. In Sierra Leone, however, Clow soon went away on an expedition, and Newton was left with his wife, a black African woman, herself a slave holder [12]. He relates mistreatment at the hands of the woman. The relationship with his benefactor soon deteriorated, and Newton was forced to face harsh treatment again [13].

His father arranged for his ‘rescue’ and he eventually joined up with another ship’s crew. Again Newton displayed old habits–drunkenness, and swearing to the point of constructing his own profanities [14]. On a trip back to England the ship encountered a violent storm, to the point where the captain believed that it was due to a ‘Jonah’ on board, named John Newton [15]. During the storm, Newton cried out ‘God have mercy upon us’ [16]. According to, he would ‘never forget that “turning day” in 1748 when, as an obstreperous, rebellious young man, he was surprised to hear himself crying out during a violent storm at sea… For it was on that day he discovered, “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.” Every year that followed, he kept [that day] 21 March apart as a day of remembrance, for thanksgiving, fasting and prayer’ [17].

Finally, after reaching the safety of the Irish coast, Newton reflected on his ‘life’s journey.’ He read the New Testament, and was particularly struck by the parable of the Prodigal Son. He writes that by this time, he had ‘satisfactory evidence…of the truth of the Gospels…and of its exact suitableness to answer all of my needs’ [18].

He proposed to Mary Catlett, who accepted. He was offered the captaincy of a slave ship. He declined, but accepted the position of first mate [19].

He set sail from Liverpool to the African coast of Guinea. Again, he fell back into his old ways.

Soon after my departure from Liverpool I began to grow slack in waiting upon the Lord. I grew vain and trifling in my conversations.  By the time I arrived at Guinea, I seemed to have forgotten all of the Lord’s mercies. Profaneness excepted, I was almost as bad as before. Sin first deceives, then it hardens. I was now fast bound in chains; I had little desire, and no power at all to free myself.  I would at times reflect how it was with me, but if I attempted to struggle, it was vain [20].

In Guinea Newton experienced more misadventures, including a ‘violent’ illness, and the deaths, some by murder, of fellow sailors. The ship, with Newton on board, left Guinea and sailed to Antigua, and then on to Charlestown, South Carolina [21]. From there he returned to England and he and Mary Catlett were married in 1750.

In August of that year, Newton was appointed captain of a slave ship with a crew of thirty men and embarked on another journey. It would be fourteen months before he returned home.

In 1752 he embarked on his second voyage as a captain. He held Bible classes and worship services. Some members of the crew resented this and plotted a mutiny. This was foiled however when two of the ringleaders took ill and one died [22].  The ship with its cargo arrived at ‘St. Christopher’ (now St. Kitts). Fully expecting to receive letters from his wife, he was devastated to learn that none had arrived.  The absence of letters persuaded Newton that his wife had died, since she wrote regularly. He convinced himself that her ‘death’ was a result of him not sharing his faith [23].  Nonetheless he sent a small boat to Antigua—their original destination–and a package of letters was collected there.  In August of 1753 he returned to England. Six weeks later he embarked on his third and final voyage as a slave ship captain. In May, 1754, while docked at Sandy Bay, in what is now St. Kitts, Newton met another slave ship captain, Alexander Clunie, who was a believer [24].

During this period Newton ‘came to a deeper understanding about many things in the Bible, including a greater understanding of the covenant of grace, the security in it, and the perseverance of the saints’ [25].  He returned to England in August of 1754.  By now the slave trade had become ‘distasteful’ to him and he was eager to find a way out of it. One day, while sitting at tea with his wife, Newton was smitten with a sever ‘seizure’ which rendered him paralyzed for an hour.  His doctors forbade him to sail again, and he resigned his position.

He was soon offered a position of ‘surveyor of tides’ in Liverpool, which he accepted.   He studied books that were ‘spiritually profitable’, learning Greek and Hebrew. He read the ‘best writers in Divinity’ and began to consider service in the ministry.

I could but wish for such a public opportunity to testify the riches of Divine grace. I thought I was, above most living, a fit person to proclaim that faithful saying ‘that Jesus Christ came into the world to save the chief of sinners;’ and as my life had been full of remarkable turns, and I seemed selected to show what the Lord could do, I was in some hopes, that perhaps, sooner or later, He might call me into His service [26].

On the advice of his friend and fellow captain, Clunie, Newton began to develop religious associations, formed friendships with contacts in London. His taste for ‘religious associations’ were fired by the fellowship he experienced with influential Christians of the day including Samuel Pike (1717–1773) and George Whitefield (1714-1770).  (George Whitefield, who Christianity Today has called ‘probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century’ [27], was a leading figure in the Great Awakening and Methodist Movement, together with John and Charles Wesley [28]). Whenever he could travel up from his temporary home in Chatham, Newton attended their regular fellowship meetings [29].

In 1757 Newton began to seek a ‘living in an established Church’ [30]. He applied for ordination in the Church of England but was refused. It would be more than seven years before he was accepted. In 1764 Newton was recommended for the position of curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, and finally became a priest on June 17th.

Curate of Olney

Olney is a small town in the English Midlands, about sixty miles north of central London. Newton’s first impression of the town was that of a ‘low and dirty country whose inhabitants mostly dwelt in poverty’ [31].  Central to the town’s economy in 1764 was the manufacture of ‘bone lace’ whose price fluctuated wildly, frequently leaving the town’s craftspeople on the brink of ‘starvation’ [32].

He published his Authentic Narrative in his first year at Olney. The biography gave an account of his early life, conversion, and call to the ministry. His reputation grew and people came from far and near to seek his counsel and help [33]. He also became well known for his hymn, sermons and letters.  He has been described as ‘the letter writer par excellence of the Evangelical Revival and that this ‘was his distinctive contribution to that great movement’ [34].

The essential truths of Newton’s letters, as listed in the Letters of John Newton, published by the Banner of Truth Trust, are these. True evangelical religion:

  • is intensely personal
  • produces intense exercise of soul
  • is intensely practical

The letters addressed such issues as ‘The Benefits of Affliction’– ‘suffering quickens us to prayer’; ‘‘The School of Suffering’ – since Jesus suffered ‘[h]ow much better to be called to the honor of experiencing a measure of His sufferings!’ [35]. He also writes of ‘Doubts and Fears’ and of God’s expression of a ‘peculiar care and tenderness for the weak of the flock’.

According to historians, his journal and letters writings were among the first ‘important account’ of what it was like to be at sea in the ‘slave trade’ business [36].

Newton’s reputation grew well beyond the borders of his parish. He counted among his friends Dissenters and established Anglicans alike, and traveled and preached throughout the country. In Olney he welcomed visitors from all over the country to his home [37].

It was during his time that Newton met William Cowper (pronounced Cooper). Cowper was an extremely shy young man who had tried to escape the terror of a public bar examination by attempting to commit suicide [38].  Cowper moved to the village of Olney in 1767. Newton would become a close friend and spiritual adviser. Cowper came to a ‘belief in the mercy of Jesus’ and converted to evangelical Christianity while being treated at an alyssum’ [39]. Cowper later became a renowned poet in his own right, publishing the anit-slavery poem, ‘The Negro’s Complaint’, and the 5,000 line poem, ‘The Task’ [40].

Newton preached and held weekly prayer meetings. He persuaded Cowper to write a hymn for each of these meetings [41]. Often he would write a hymn to address the specific need of some member of his congregation [42].The collection would eventually be published in the Olney Hymns hymnal, in 1779.

Among the more than three hundred hymns they would write were ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken’, ‘How Sweet The Name of Jesus Sounds’ and, of course, ‘Amazing Grace’.

There is conflicting information on when the hymn was written. Bill Moyers’ documentary, Amazing Grace, reports it being written between 1760 and 1770, however The John Newton Project has it being written for a January 1, 1773 sermon [43].

‘Amazing Grace’ is emblematic of the letters and sermons published in The Amazing Works of John Newton, addressing the ‘wretchedness of his condition as a young man, and the redemption received only through the grace of Christ.

Amazing Grace

(Original words)

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 forbears to shine,
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

In a later version of the hymn the last three stanzas are replaced by a single verse, reportedly written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin [44].

When we’ve been through ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun

There are different accounts on the origin of the melody with which Amazing Grace is associated. According to the tune was ‘probably’ taken from an Appalachian folk tune entitled, ‘New Britain’.  ‘It was first set to ‘Amazing Grace’ in 1835 [45].

The melody to which ‘Amazing Grace’ was put was probably taken from the tune ‘New Britain.‘

NEW BRITAIN…was originally a folk tune, probably sung slowly with grace notes and melodic embellishments. It was first published as a hymn tune in shape notes in Columbian Harmony (1829) to the text “Arise, my soul, my joyful pow’rs.” It was first set to “Amazing Grace” in William Walker’s…Southern Harmony (1835) [46].

Trouble began to develop in Newton’s ministry.  Parishioners were encouraged to conduct ‘mid-week prayer groups and other meetings he instituted’, but soon became ‘restless’ under his leadership.  On one occasion Newton spoke out against the ‘reckless behavior’ on Guy Fawkes Day. The opposition of the some of the townspeople was so fierce that he had to ‘bribe’ several of them not to burn down his house [47]. The incident left Newton believing that the townspeople were ‘increasingly affected’ by spiritual deadness, and complained to a friend that the townspeople had become ‘sermon proof.’  So when ‘in 1779 he received an invitation ‘by England’s richest merchant and, at one time, the Director of the Bank of England [48] John Thornton, to become rector of one of the most prestigious parishes in London, St. Mary Woolnoth, he accepted, and was installed that December [49].

The Abolitionist

Newton, by this time, was considered to be one of the pre-eminent leaders of the Great Awakening’s second generation [50]. However it was his relationship with a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, that would establish another enduring legacy, along with the hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ (For further information on Wilberforce’s views on Christian faith, please see my blog, Wilberforce and Real Christianity).

Wilberforce came from a wealthy family of merchants. As a child his family was visited by the evangelists George Whitefield and John Newton [51]. He came to London from Cambridge in 1779 and formed a deep friendship with William Pitt the Younger, (1759-1806). They entered politics in 1780 and Wilberforce became a Member of Parliament, and three years later, at 24, William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister (1783–1801, 1804–06) [52]. Also among Wilberforce’s social circle was the son of John Thornton, Henry Thornton, who would later become an eminent economist [53].

After a European trip with his friend, the brilliant Cambridge scientist and mathematician, Isaac Milner, who was also an Anglican clergyman, Wilberforce converted to evangelical Christianity in 1784-1785 [54]. Back in London he sought the spiritual counsel of John Newton, by then the ‘leading Anglican evangelical in London’ [55].

After a period of self-examination and prayer Wilberforce concluded that “God had set before me two objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” [i.e. morality [56].

In 1787 Wilberforce helped to found…the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade—the latter more commonly called the Anti-Slavery Society. He and his associates—Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton, Charles Grant, Edward James Eliot, Zachary Macaulay, and James Stephen—were first called the Saints and afterward (from 1797 onwards) the Clapham Sect, of which Wilberforce was the acknowledged leader.

Wilberforce and his associates went about gathering firsthand accounts of the atrocities within the slave trade. Former slaves such as Oluadah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano [57], provided first-hand information on their experiences in bondage.  Wilberforce also solicited information from his friend and spiritual advisor, Newton, on his experiences as slave ship captain. Newton was able to provide details on the conditions on board a ship that few others could. One of the most harrowing recollections emanated from his own pen:

With our ships the great object is to be full. The cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons or a little more is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty slaves. For the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other like books…on a shelf . I have known them so close that the shelf would not easily contain one more, and I have known a white man, sent down among the men, to lay them in these rows, to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost. I write from memory after an interval of more than thirty years. But at the same time I believe many things which I saw, heard and felt upon the coast of Africa are so deeply engraven in my memory that I can hardly forget. John Newton.

It was mainly through John Newton, talking about his experiences [in] the slave trade that the important and influential people in London came to realized that it was ‘not good’ [58].

Needless to say, the Society’s opposition to the slave trade was met with hostility. Admiral [Horatio] Nelson wrote that as long as he would speak and fight he would resist ‘the damnable doctrines of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies’ [59].  Nonetheless the fight continued. Starting in 1793, and for almost every year afterward in the 1790s, Wilberforce put forward a Bill to abolish the slave trade only to have it defeated every time [60].

Finally [o]n the night of February 23, 1807, excitement grew in the House of Commons as [Wilberforce’s] latest motion was debated. Speech after speech spoke in favor of abolition, and his fellow members began to pay tribute to Wilberforce…The House of Commons rose to its feet, turned to Wilberforce, and began to cheer. They gave three rousing hurrahs while Wilberforce sat with his head bowed and wept. Then the Commons voted to abolish the slave trade by a vote of 283 to 16. Prime Minister Granville called the passage ‘a measure which will diffuse happiness among millions now in existence, and for which his memory will be blessed by millions yet unborn’ [61].

On 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered the statute books [62] officially ending the trading of slaves within the British Empire*. John Newton, former ‘infidel and libertine’, slave trader, surveyor of tides, ‘wretched’, self-confessed sinner, hymn writer, esteemed clergyman, and, ultimately, a sinner redeemed by the grace of Jesus Christ, was eighty-one years old. Almost nine months later, on December 21st, 1807, John Newton died at his London home [63]. On December 23rd, the obituary in The Times read:

DIED At his house in Coleman-street-buildings, aged 82, the Rev. John Newton, Rector of the United Parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth, and St. Mary Woolchurch Haw, of which parishes he had been Rector 28 years. His unblemished life, his amiable character, both as a man and as a Minister, and his able writings, are too well known to need any comment [64].

Over seven decades later, in 1893, Newton and his wife Mary were reinterred in the southeast corner of the graveyard at St. Peter and St. Paul Church, Olney, Buckinghamshire.

His epitaph, which he wrote, reads:

Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.
He ministered,
Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,
And twenty-eight years in this Church.

*Although the Act made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies, trafficking between the Caribbean islands continued, regardless, until 1811. [65].

Final Thoughts

John Newton’s story is a truly compelling one. Why? I believe that his is an all too human story.  Many can relate to his failures of a young man—prone to profanity, irresponsible behaviour, getting into trouble, the punishment he suffered and the pain he endured, much of which was a result of his own behaviour.  Perhaps this makes it easier for the reader to believe that the redemption and the ‘grace’ he received later in his life can be theirs as well.

One of the more alarming aspects of his story, I’ll argue, is how complacent Christians were regarding the enslavement of fellow human beings. Initially Newton was a member of this group. Even after his conversion in 1748, he went on to captain a slave ship on three occasions.  What’s fascinating about this is the extent to which human beings have the ability to rationalize almost any behaviour, in this instance, slavery. Applying this reasoning to 2016, one can reasonably ask: are there activities/ actions that are entirely acceptable today that will be considered unacceptable, even barbaric, in the future? What drives society’s sense of morality, of values, of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’?

Finally, a note on The Amazing Works of John Newton.  The volume is noticeably sketchy on Newton’s travels from Africa to the Caribbean. There is scant attention given to the uncomfortable reality that these voyages were in fact the infamous ‘Middle Passage’ of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, that human beings were being forced into lives of bondage never to taste freedom again.  Not addressing the promotion of this activity, against the backdrop of the grace of Jesus Christ is, at least from today’s vantage point, bewildering. At the risk of imposing 21st sensibilities on 18th century practices, I’ll suggest that the volume is weakened by this omission, particularly in light of Newton’s abolitionist views later in life.  However the over-riding story—of the sinful state of man, ultimately redeemed by genuine faith—is truly inspirational.

© 2016 Weldon Turner

Next month: Handel, The Messiah


John Newton
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Editorial license secured.


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One thought on “John Newton, Amazing Grace”

  1. Thank you, so informative. I had no idea on the background that led up that song being created.
    I agree with you, it’s troubling how certain things are accepted now and then later we realize how callous we’ve been….thinking of those living in persistent poverty, refugees.

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