Amazing Grace: the story of John Newton

photo taken at Stanford Chapel, Palo Alto, CA

photo taken at Stanford Chapel, Palo Alto, CA

There once was a man named John.  He was born in London, in 1725.  His father was the commander of a merchant ship that sailed in the Mediterranean. Little is known about his mother, except that she taught John what he knew about God.  She died when John was young.  At the age of eleven, John began sailing on long voyages with his father- six in total.

After his father retired, in 1744, John was on his way to Jamaica, to take a position as a slave master, but instead, he was called into service on an English naval war ship, the H.M.S. Harwhich.  Conditions were terrible and John deserted, but he was caught, flogged, and demoted to seamen.

It was after this, that John requested that he be exchanged.  He was sent into service on a slave ship.  As the servant of a slave trader, he was brutally abused until 1748, when another ship captain, a friend of John’s father, rescued him.  John later went on to become the captain of his own slave ship (where slaves were brutally abused).

“Lord, have mercy upon us.”

It was John who called out those words, on a homeward voyage to England.  His ship was about to sink during a violent storm.  Until this moment, John had not given any thought to God, not since his early childhood with his mother.  He had, by all accounts, been a true wretch, underserving of mercy.

But God showed him mercy.  John called this moment in the storm his “great deliverance,” He was saved from the storm, but more than that, this was the turning point of his life.  This is when John says that grace had begun to work for him.   He observed that day, May 10th, 1748, as the day of his conversion.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;

John’s own words, written years later, describe the horror of the slave trade, and I will not go into lurid details, but truly, it takes no stretch of the imagination to understand that John understood the depravity of his own sin.  The word, scandalous, is often paired with the word, grace.  The grace that is available to all of us is not something of this world.  It offends our sense of justice. Yet God is a just God.  Sin does not go unpunished.  We could never pay the price or bear the punishment of our sins, so Jesus did it for us. Grace is costly, though not for us.  For us, one of the biggest hurdles, is accepting that it's truly a free gift.   There's nothing we can do to earn it.  

This is not a story of an instantaneous conversion though, not from the viewpoint of society.  John still worked as a slave trader for a time after his conversion.  Grace was working in his heart, and he was a changed man, but it took time for the fruit of that grace to become apparent.

Eventually, John gave up the slave trade, married, and began educating himself.  He became friends with George Whitfield, leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.  John, too, wanted to become a minister.

John did just that, preaching about the scandalous grace of the cross, which saved him. He became friends with the poet, William Cowper, and together, they collaborated on a hymnal.  This is where you will find one of the most well loved hymns of all time, Amazing Grace, by John Newton.

I once was blind, but now I see,

This takes on a deeper meaning when more of the story is known.

John’s preaching drew large congregations, and he influenced many, including William Wilberforce, who later became a leader in the campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire.   John eventually became blind from an illness, but he continued to preach until a year before his death.  He was a changed man, a visible light of God's love, bringing glory to Him.

John Newton credits the grace of God for redeeming his life.  I believe he was profoundly changed by grace because he recognized how much he needed it, because he knew how wretched his sin was.  But even that was not to his credit, even that was grace, and evidence of the Holy Spirit changing his heart.

I want grace to change me too.  It has, and it is, changing me, though it's work is not yet done. In society’s eyes, my sin may not look as wretched as John Newton’s was; yet in God’s eyes, it is.  I am no more deserving of God's mercy than John was.  Nobody is.  When I am not being changed by grace, it is because I am not recognizing how truly amazing that grace is.  I pray that the truth of God's grace will continue to work in my heart- and in your heart, too. 


There are so many beautiful renditions of this hymn, and it's hard to pick a favorite, but I'll leave you with one.  This song needs no embellishment, so I like Alan Jackson's heartfelt and simple version....

Who sings your favorite version?