John Newton: Trophy of Grace


"Grace! tis a charming sound, Harmonious to the ear, Heaven with the echo shall resound, And all the earth shall hear" - Philip Doddridge.

Perhaps there is no greater trophy of grace than John Newton (1725-1807). He was born in London; his mother died when he was seven. For six years, he sailed with his father, a merchant shipmaster on the Mediterranean. "His early life was one of sad and wanton profligacy" with intermittent, failing attempts to "live right." Shortly after setting out on his own, he was impressed (forcibly enlisted) into the Royal Navy-where his arrogance and disagreeable nature resulted in severe discipline and multiple transfers.

During this time, he became attached to ships involved in the horrible African slave trade, but his refusal to get along with others caused one captain to maroon him as an indentured servant to an slave trader's African wife. He was rescued in 1748, and during a severe storm that almost sank his ship on the return voyage to England, Newton experienced a dramatic conversion. He began reading the Bible and came under the influence of evangelical Anglican leaders like George Whitefield and John Wesley. He married his childhood sweetheart, Mary, in 1750, and though they had no children of their own, they later adopted two orphaned nieces.

Though the effect of his salvation in his behavior and attitude was almost immediate, Newton continued for several more years in the slave trade, both as a slave ship captain and an investor.

In the 1750s, he left the business, and began to pursue Christian ministry. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, was ordained a deacon, and received a curacy at Olney. There he became an intimate friend of William Cowper, with whom he collaborated on the production of Olney Hymns, which ranks high in English hymnody. In 1780 he was appointed rector of St. Mary's Woolnoth, London, the post he held for life. Newton was a "main pillar of the Evangelical party in the Church of England."

Later in his life, Newton came to see the evil of slavery, and renounced his participation in it fully. In 1788, he published a widely distributed pamphlet, Thoughts on the Slave Trade, in which he described the gruesome details of the trade and apologized for "a confession, which comes too late. It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." He threw his influence behind the fledgling abolitionist movement, allied with William Wilberforce, and sent his pamphlet to every Member of Parliament.

In addition to Wilberforce (for whom Newton played a key role in shepherding him to stay in politics and serve God by passing just laws), he strongly influenced major leaders such as Thomas Scott (the pastor of a neighboring church who later became one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society), Charles Simeon (another co-founder of the CMS and influential evangelical pastor), and Hannah More (a playwright, author, philanthropist, and fellow abolitionist). Newton lived to see Wilberforce's abolition bill passed by the House of Commons in March 1807.

A prolific writer, Newton's books include Omicron, Cardiphonia, and A Review of Ecclesiastical History. His classic song "Amazing Grace" has been called the greatest hymn ever written, its popularity undiminished after more than two centuries. One wonders how and indeed whether the light, giddy, pop tunes widely heard today will survive in coming years. His best known and loved hymns also include "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" and "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds."

"Well done, thou good and faithful servant" (Matt. 25:21).

Bernard R. DeRemer chronicled the lives of dozens of heroes of the faith in more than a decade of writing for Pulpit Helps Magazine. He continues to serve in this capacity as a volunteer contributor to Disciple. He lives in West Liberty, Ohio.

Reference:Who Was Who in Church History, by Elgin S. Moyer; excerpts used by permission of Moody Publishers.

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