The transformation that occurs in our lives every time we repent, and every step of the conversion that is ongoing throughout our lives moves us towards the glory in which we hope one day to experience in heaven. The story of John Newton’s life illustrates such a conversion, for which God patiently and unfailingly supplied the grace.
In the night of March 21, 1748, the English merchant vessel Greyhound sailed into a severe storm. Within minutes, violent winds splintered the mast and waves poured down from the deck, inundating sailors struggling up ladders from below. Twenty-three-year-old John Newton watched as a surge caught the sailor above him and swept him overboard.
As the crew frantically worked to pump water from the rapidly filling ship, Newton was assigned to steer. Lashed to his post so as not to be washed away, the young sailor stared into the wind and darkness—and the face of death. Having gone to sea at the age of eleven, he had matured into a model of debauchery and vice. Terrified now, Newton shouted prayers into the howling wind—for the first time in years using God’s name in anything but profanity.
Four days later, the wrecked shell of the Greyhound limped into port in Ireland, and Newton felt that he had been “snatched, by a miracle, from sinking into the ocean and into hell.” “Touched with a sense of undeserved mercy,” the young man began to attend church and tried to reform. Over time, he cleaned up his life and attained some degree of personal morality.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
A “Respectable” Calling? For the next five years, Newton, now a self-respecting, churchgoing, Bible-reading Christian worked—in the slave trade. English slave traders crisscrossed the Atlantic, buying human captives from local kidnappers in west Africa, paying for them with pots and pans and other manufactured goods from England. In the Americas—mostly in the Caribbean—they exchanged the captives for sugar. Back home in England, they sold the sugar for a high price. This triangular trade was hugely profitable, legitimate, and socially respectable. Newton served on four of these three-cornered trading expeditions, three times as captain.
The journey across the mid-Atlantic—the so-called “middle passage” was brutal. Men and women were crammed into the hold of the ship, chained together on shelves so low they could not sit up. During much of the slow, sweltering voyage, the captives lay in excrement and vomit. One third of the captives typically perished en route, most dying of dysentery in an agony of bloody diarrhea.
Above decks, Newton enjoyed a different life. As master of the ship, his responsibilities demanded little of his time and he delegated most duties. At sea, he spent long hours alone in the captain’s cabin praying, studying Scripture and mathematics, composing essays in Latin, and writing letters to his wife.
In a letter, Newton wrote that in terms of “promoting the life of God in the soul” he did not know any line of work that compared with commanding a ship. At sea one was “withdrawn out of the reach of innumerable temptations.” The vast sea and sky were a stimulus “to quicken and confirm the life of faith.” Indeed, Newton wrote, “I never knew sweeter or more frequent hours of divine communion than in my two last voyages to Guinea.” Those were his voyages as master of the African.
Captain Newton liked to play pastor for the sailors. Every Sunday he would gather them for a service and preach against the evils of profanity and licentiousness.
Blind Complacency. What went on below decks was morally insignificant, from Newton’s point of view. He considered the captives as merchandise—like the sugar that would take their place in the hold on the final leg of the journey. He identified individual captives by number, not by name and referred to them as “creatures.” He compared his ship to Noah’s ark.
Biographer William E. Phipps writes that Newton’s diary “contains dozens of pages largely filled with his confessions of personal wrongdoings, but one searches in vain for any awareness of sin in relation to his slaving business. If one did not know what his ship’s mission was, one might presume that he had been on an extended spiritual cruise for meditating about his Savior.”
Years later, Newton acknowledged that, “during the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple as to its lawlessness. I was, upon the whole, satisfied with it, as the appointment Providence had marked out for me.”
Since Newton regarded slave trading as his God-given vocation, he set sail with the kind of reliance on God’s help that one might expect to find in a devout farmer or carpenter. At the beginning of the ship’s log, he wrote: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep”—a quotation from Psalm 107:23-24 (King James Version).
“The eyes of my mind were not opened until long afterwards,” he later wrote.
Changing Course. In 1754, a brief illness forced Newton to take a job ashore as a customs official in Liverpool. There he came into contact with leading figures in the evangelical revival that was sweeping England. Most important, he became friends with John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement.
Wesley was one of the very few Englishmen of his day to publicly condemn slavery. He called it the “sum of all villainies” and forbade his followers to participate in it. Through Wesley, it seems, Newton changed his view of slavery.
Again, however, Newton’s experience defies ordinary expectations. It would be satisfying to know that he had experienced a sudden moment of revelation and repentance regarding his slave trading, accompanied by gut-wrenching expressions of anguish. Apparently, though, the shift in his thinking occurred quietly and gradually. Nevertheless, later events demonstrated that his repentance was profound.
“A Wretch Like Me.” Newton was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1764. Stationed in a small, rural parish, he became a fine pastor. In ways that were unusual for pastors in his situation, he reached out creatively to young people, gave sermons that were accessible to ordinary people, and attended to the needs of poor parishioners, including victims of smallpox. Newton favored religious tolerance and criticized fellow Protestants who wanted to restrict Catholics’ religious freedom.
To encourage his congregation, Newton wrote many hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
The words take on new meaning when one knows that, by this time, Newton had come to see slavery as a grave injustice.
Shame and Repentance. For some time, Newton aired his opposition to slavery only in private conversations. In 1780, however, he moved to a church in downtown London. This put him near the center of the growing national debate over slavery in England. Newton seized the opportunity to take a public stand. He began to write and speak openly against slavery and developed a network of people who advocated abolition of the slave trade.
Of particular importance, Newton encouraged a young politician named William Wilberforce to work for abolition. With Newton’s ongoing encouragement, Wilberforce became the champion of abolition in Parliament for more than twenty years.
Few people in England were well informed about the slave trade. Industry leaders concealed the facts. To expose the lucrative business for what it was, Newton published Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. As a former slave ship captain, he spoke with authority on the subject. His book helped to change English people’s view of slavery.
Newton’s Thoughts was more than a damning description of the slave trade. It was a personal confession. “My heart now shudders,” he wrote, at the memory of his share in the enslavement of fellow human beings. “I am bound in conscience to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent or repair the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory.”
In 1807, spurred by Wilberforce, the British government outlawed the trade in human captives. At the end of that same year, John Newton died. Not long before, he had remarked, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior.”
A Lifetime of Conversion. “Amazing Grace” celebrates a God who rescues people in desperate need and spurs them to conversion. Read against the background of Newton’s life, his great hymn also reflects a God of incomprehensible patience—the God who bore with a slave trader for years in order to bring him to see the depths of his sin. Conversion may occur in an hour but work itself out in a lifetime.
John Newton’s life bears witness that God will not fail to supply the “amazing grace” we need for gradual but decisive conversion.
Kevin Perrotta, author of numerous articles and books on Scripture and the Christian life, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.