Faithful Heroes: John Newton

As we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July tomorrow, I thought it would be fitting to study a faithful hero who was both a slave and a slave trader, before he gained freedom in Christ.   He then worked to abolish the institution of slavery in Great Britain.

Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound that saved a wretch like me.

The well-known hymn, not only describes our life but that of it’s author.

John Newton was born on August 4, 1725 in London, England. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Scatliff Newton.

Shipping was in his blood. His father was a shipmaster and his maternal grandfather was an instrument maker.

Two weeks before his seventh birthday, John lost his mother to tuberculosis {also known as consumption}. She had raised him in the scriptures and Christian faith.

John spent the next two years at boarding school, before joining his father and new stepmother in Aveley in Essex.

John was only eleven, when he first went to sea with his father. The two sailed on six voyages together before his father retired in 1742.

Upon his father’s retirement, plans were made for the young John to work on a sugarcane plantation in Jamaica. But, John had other ideas and signed on with a merchant ship sailing to the Mediterranean Sea.

He gained a reputation for gambling, drinking and profanity. “Newton lost his first job, in a merchant’s office, because of “unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint”—a pattern that would persist for years.”

The next year, John was captured and pressed into service by the Royal Navy. He became a midshipman {the rating of an experienced seaman at the time} aboard HMS Harwich. When he tried to desert, he was stripped to the waist, tied to the grating and flogged eight times in front of 350 crewman. He was then reduced in rank to a common seaman.

John was so humiliated and disgraced that he seriously contemplated committing suicide or murdering the captain.

While the HMS Harwich was en route to India, he was transferred to another ship, Pegasus, which was a slave ship bound for West Africa.

He did not get along with his new crew and they deserted him in West Africa, leaving him with Amos Clowe, a slave dealer. Clowe to John to the coast and gave him to his wife, Princes Peye of the Sherbro people, but she abused and mistreated him, just as she did her slaves. His clothes turned to rags and he was forced to beg for food. He later recounted this period as the time he was “once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa.”

Three years later, in early 1748, he was rescued by a sea captain, who had been asked by John’s father to search for him.

On his voyage back to England, aboard the merchant ship Greyhound, John Newton had a spiritual conversion.

“The ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Donegal, Ireland and almost sank. Newton awoke in the middle of the night and, as the ship filled with water, called out to God. The cargo shifted and stopped up the hole, and the ship drifted to safety. Newton marked this experience as the beginning of his conversion to evangelical Christianity.”

John Newton

He began to study the Bible and accepted Christ on March 10, 1748. He would celebrate this day as the anniversary of his conversion for the remainder of his life.

“He later said that his true conversion did not happen until some time later: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

He returned to England, but later returned to sea on the slave ship Brownlow. He continued to work in the slave trade, but slowly he gained sympathy for the African slaves.

While in West Africa, John became “ill with a fever and professed his full belief in Christ, asking God to take control of his destiny. He later said that this was the first time he felt totally at peace with God.”

He returned to England in 1750 and married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett. The couple would adopt two orphaned nieces, Elizabeth and Eliza Catlett.

John Newton made three more voyages on slave ships as captain, until a severe stroke in 1754 forced him to give up seafaring and slave trading activities. However, he continue to invest in slave operations for a time.

Upon return to England, he was appoited as a tide surveyor {tax collector} in Liverpool He began to study Greek, Hebrew and the scriptures.

In 1757, he applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England. However, it took him another seven years before he was accepted. With the help of a friend, he was finally ordained a priest on June 17, 1764.

He soon became known for his pastoral care and beliefs. He spent the next sixteen years as minister at Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. He received a “stipend of £60 a year with £200 a year “for hospitality and to help the poor”.

William Cowper

In 1767, William Cowper, became a worshiper at his church. They began to collaborate on many hymns together.

John Newton wrote a hymn for almost every Thursday evening prayer song, which he began in 1769. In addition to Amazing Grace he also wrote hymns such as There is a Fountain, O for a Closer Walk with God and How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.

In 1779, he became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London, where he would officiate until his death.

He became well known and a mentor to men such as Hannah More and William Wilbeforce.

Vicarage in Olney where John Newton lived

Thirty-four years after leaving the slave trade, John Newton published his Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in 1788, breaking his silence onthe subject. “He 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 had copies sent to every MP, and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required reprinting.”

Newton worked with Wilburforce, who became a strong voice to abolish slavery.

In 1790, his wife Mary died and three years later he published Letters to a Wife, which expressed his grief. “At the end of his life John would write that their love “equaled all that the writers of romance have imagined”.”

John Newton

“In 1792, Newton was presented with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).”

John Newton died on December 21, 1807 in London, only months after slavery was outlawed in Great Britain, and was buried beside his wife. They are re-interred into the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Olney in 1893.

The movie Amazing Grace tells of his influence of William Wilburforce in the movement to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom.

John Newton found #freedom in Christ to inspire the famous hymn Amazing Grace #faithfulheroes #heroesofthefaith Click To Tweet

John Newton grave

John Newton pulpit

John Newton preaching

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