How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
These were the words of John Newton, a former slave ship captain, who died Dec. 21, 1807. At age 11, his mother died and he went to sea with his father. Young John Newton fell in love with Mary Catlett while on shore leave, but overstaying his visit, he missed his ship’s departure.
In 1744, he was caught by a “press gang” and dragged onto the ship HMS Harwich where he was forced to be a sailor. Newton tried to desert but was caught, stripped to the waist and flogged with eight dozen lashes.
John Newton later wrote in a letter: “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.”
His reckless behavior caused him to be traded to a slave ship. Being a continual problem, Newton was intentionally left on a plantation in Sierra Leone, West Africa. There the African slave dealer, Amos Clowe, made John Newton a slave of his wife, Princess Peye, an African duchess, where he suffered abuse and mistreatment.
Years later, Scottish Missionary David Livingstone, mentioned John Newton and the Muslim Arab slave traders’ shocking treatment of African slaves (“Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa,” London, October 1857): “It was refreshing to get food which could be eaten without producing the unpleasantness described by the Rev. John Newton, of St. Mary’s, Woolnoth, London, when obliged to eat the same roots while a slave in the West (Africa). …”
David Livingstone continued: “A party of Arabs from Zanzibar were … at a village in the same latitude as Naliele town. … The Arabs mentioned … they … disliked the English, ‘because they thrash (criticize) them for selling slaves.’ … I ventured to tell them that I agreed with the English, that it was better to let the children grow up and comfort their mothers when they became old, than to carry them away and sell them across the sea. … After many explanations of our abhorrence of slavery, and how displeasing it must be to God to see his children selling one another.”
David Livingstone described the Arab Muslim slave trade as “a monster brooding over Africa.”
John Newton was finally rescued from Africa but continued his immoral life in the slave trade, deriding Christians with blasphemy that shocked even sailors. John Newton wrote in 1778: “How industrious is Satan served. I was formerly one of his active under-temptors and had my influence been equal to my wishes I would have carried all the human race with me. A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was.”
In 1747, Newton was on the slave ship Greyhound. They were caught in a storm so terrible that he was convinced they would sink. He prayed for the first time in his life.
John Newton then read Thomas a Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ'” and the Bible. He continued in the slave trade for a time, but endeavored to treat slaves humanely. Newton finally left the slave trade, married Mary Catlett in 1750, and moved to Liverpool, where from 1755 to 1760 he worked as a surveyor of tides.
While there, Newton met the evangelistic preacher George Whitefield and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Newton was inspired to become a minister and taught himself Greek and Hebrew. He was turned down by the Archbishop of York, but persisted and was eventually ordained in 1764. John Newton was assigned to the village of Olney, Buckinghamshire, where he humbly proclaimed the saving power of Christ.
In 1767, poet William Cowper moved to Olney, and with his help, Newton composed songs for their weekly prayer meetings. These songs were first published in 1779 in a collection titled “Olney Hymns.”
The Olney Hymns include:
- “Oh! for a Closer Walk with God”
- “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”
- “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”
In 1785, William Cowper wrote in the poem “Winter Walk at Noon”: “Nature is but a name for an effect, Whose cause is God.”
In 1780, Newton moved to London to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, St. Mary Woolchurch. John Newton continually preached against slavery and published his ghastly experiences in the slave trade in 1788.
Many influential leaders attended John Newton’s services, among them being William Wilberforce. Newton encouraged William Wilberforce to champion the effort in the British Parliament to end slavery.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan wrote in “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation” (The Human Life Review): “Prayer and action are needed to uphold the sanctity of human life. I believe it will not be possible to accomplish our work of saving lives, ‘without being a soul of prayer.’ The famous British member of Parliament William Wilberforce prayed with his small group of influential friends, the ‘Clapham Sect,’ for decades to see an end to slavery in the British empire. Wilberforce led that struggle in Parliament, unflaggingly, because he believed in the sanctity of human life. He saw the fulfillment of his impossible dream when Parliament outlawed slavery just before his death.”
Engraved on Newton’s tomb and on a church plaque is:
once an infidel and libertine,
a servant of slaves in Africa,
was, by the rich mercy
of our Lord and Saviour
preserved, restored, pardoned,
and appointed to preach the faith
he had long labored to destroy.
Considered the most popular Christian hymn ever, John Newton’s word began:
Amazine 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 hath 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.
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