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Amazing Grace
Newton at SeaSamuel McCafferty, B.D.*  

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, you and I might have entered a little Anglican church in Olney near London. Had we entered the vestry prior to the service, we would have heard the gray-haired preacher at prayer, and the words he would repeat time and again were, "Lord, I am the least of all Thy saints. What amazing grace, that I should enter this church to preach the unsearchable riches in Christ!" For John Newton vied with the apostle Paul as to his right of being the "chief of sinners." Raising himself up, he would walk to his desk and there, on a piece of paper and written in shaky handwriting, he would read and repeat the words of the Old Testament, "Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee." As he would enter his pulpit and look down, there, pinned to the lectern, were these same words. He never sat to study or stood to preach except he was reminded that God had delivered him from bondage.

Come into his rectory on Monday morning, stand outside his living-room door, and listen to the conversation. A voice we have not heard is saying, "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." "Aye," replies the preacher, "but all in grace." The voice is that of William Cowper, England's great poet who had come to a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour as he listened spellbound to the preacher of Olney. Listen again and we hear another voice, described by those who knew it as that of the most thrilling orator in the British parliament.

"Sir," he is saying, "I will give everything I have in Christ's cause that I might rid England of the terrible blight which scars her through the slave trade." The speaker is William Wilberforce, deeply influenced for Christ by the man whom God had so wondrously delivered from slavery and, later, from being captain of a slaving ship.

Born in 1725 to a respectable sea captain and a nonconformist mother with deep piety, John Newton was one of the most amazing characters of the eighteenth century. His father had spent much of his early youth in Spain at a Jesuit college; and although the school had not implanted any of the Jesuit religious zeal in him, he entered life with a determined stateliness that led to his being respected among seamen. John's mother took it upon her to see that her son was educated in the best sense. Dr. David Jennings, minister of the Congregational church at Newstairs, Wapping, encouraged Mrs. Newton in her ambition to prepare young John for the day when he would go to Scotland's St. Andrews University to be educated for the ministry. (Being a dissenter, he could not enter an English university.) Mrs. Newton was not to see that day, for she died during her son's seventh year and, in some ways, was saved many heartaches. During his early years, however, John Newton was schooled by his mother in the catechism, with the prayer that if we bring up a child in the way of the Lord, when he is old he will not depart from it.

"What is profaneness?" asked Mrs. Newton.

"Abusing or despising anything that is holy or that belongs to God," replied her son.

"What is the first instance of profaneness?"

"If I make a mock of God or reproach His name, which is called blasphemy, or if I swear or take the name of God in vain or use it in a trifling manner without seriousness."

"What is the second mark of profaneness?"

"If I should spend that time amiss which God has appointed for His own worship and service."

Brought up in the denomination of Isaac Watts, young Newton recited Watts' hymns by heart:

Why should I join with those in play
In whom I've no delight;
Who curse and swear but never pray,
Who call ill names and fight?

I hate to hear a wanton song,
Their words offend mine ears;
I should not dare defile my tongue
With language such as theirs.

Little did the mother know that ere ten years were passed, her son would curse and swear and sing a wanton song with a tongue that was as vile as any on a ship at sea.

Under the care of a stepmother, John Newton missed the love and spiritual care he had previously known. His father at sea saw little of his son. Two incidents stand out in those years. When twelve years of age, John was thrown from a horse and narrowly escaped death when he missed by inches the sharp stakes of a fence. Frightened by the incident, John Newton resolved that God must surely have given him another opportunity of life and therefore, by God's grace, he must resolve to live cleanly. But too soon he forgot the happening.

The second incident occurred when he was fifteen years of age. He had arranged a trip on a rowboat with some friends to look over a warship. Arriving at the boat slip, he found that his friends, weary of waiting for him, had set out. As he stood cursing them from the shore, he suddenly saw the boat turn over and his friends struggling for their lives. One did not survive. Death had again been so close to him. Surely God had saved him for a purpose. What that purpose was, however, John Newton did not care to know. Instead, he forgot this occurrence also. It was these two incidents which later helped force him to realize the danger of memory. And this was why he made as his special text, "Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee."

Enslaved2Captain Newton decided he must do something with his son, who was growing insolent, dreamy, and dull, and who resented deeply any chastisement. So John Newton was sent to work in Spain as a merchant-businessman's assistant. Unsettled and impatient, he lost his job. Captain Newton then decided to take John aboard his own ship, but in this situation father and son irritated each other and John again found himself on land. It was now that the rot set in, for wandering the portside one night, he found himself in the arms of some burly naval men and was gang-pressed onto a ship. When the ship's captain realized he was Captain Newton's son, he was granted privileges and raised to the position of midshipman. But young Newton had been humiliated. The one thing which still gave him some self-respect was the love he had for Mary Catlett, daughter of the woman who had nursed his mother at death. It was this love which made him jump ship when he knew he would be sailing abroad, perhaps for four to six years. Unfortunately, the press gangs caught him and he was delivered aboard ship. Before the full crew, he was stripped and beaten with lashes. He lost all rank and privileges, and was sent below deck to do the meanest tasks. His heart grew bitter. From now until he was thirty years of age and crippled by a stroke, John Newton sank to the lowest of the lowest. One can only understand the hymn "Amazing Grace" after reading about this part of his life. Putting aside all remembrances of the catechism, the now-confirmed freethinker began to mock those who thought on higher things.

EnslavedTransferred from the Royal Navy to a merchant ship, he came under the influence of a merchant named Clow who had a marriage arrangement with a negro woman that treated Newton in a manner to which no white man was ever subjected – so much so that Newton became the slave of Clow's negro wife. When any white trader appeared, Newton hid himself, ashamed to be seen in his tattered clothes and shameful occupation as the slave of a Negro.

Then one day in 1748, a ship, The Greyhound, called at Clow's plantation, and the captain inquired after a John Newton, son of an old sea-captain friend of his. With a feeling of great relief, Newton found himself being taken aboard and, on March 1, 1748, setting sail. The voyage was not an immediate return home, as the captain still had some trading to do, so John Newton spent his days in drinking and revelry. But something happened on that voyage home, for God had not forgotten Newton. On the shelves of the captain's cabin was a copy of Thomas Kempis' Thoughts. With time on his hands, Newton took down the book and began to read:

Since life is of short and of uncertain continuance, it highly concerns you to look about you and take good heed how you employ it. O hardness of men's hearts! O the wretched stupidity that fixes their whole thoughts and cares upon the present…whereas in truth, every work and word, and thought, ought to be so ordered as if it were to be our last; and we instantly to die, and render an account of it.

The shock of the words made Newton slam the book closed. He saw again his mother and heard again the words of Isaac Watts' hymns. In anger he jumped up and swore that for a freethinker as he was, he could not return to these things.

A few hours later he was facing the crisis of a sea storm and listening to the crew wailing that all was lost. In his diary Newton says, "I went to speak to the captain, and as I was turning from him I said, 'if this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us,' my first cry for mercy since my childhood." That was a crucial cry, for now he began to think on deeper things. Could the God of mercy and grace, of whom his mother had spoken, really show mercy to such a blasphemer as John Newton? He was called to the helm, and for eleven hours he steered the ship. Here he had time to think. Should the ship sink, "he was bound for another life, but he was poorly provided for the voyage." From that moment the blasphemy stopped. John Newton picked up the captain's Bible and read, "if ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?" God's convicting work had begun.

Washed ashore in Ireland, Newton vowed to re-examine the Christian faith. Looking back on that day, he wrote, "I stood in need of an almighty Saviour, and such a One I found described in the New Testament.... I was sincerely touched with a sense of undeserving mercy I had received in being brought safely through so many dangers."

God's mercy and grace were wider than he ever imagined, for Mary Catlett had remained true to him and was waiting to give her hand to him in marriage. However, Newton as yet was not finished with the sea, nor was he as yet willing to grant mercy and grace (such as God had granted him) to the African slaves. Offered captaincy of the ship, The Duke of Argyll, he set out for sea as an exchanger of liquor with white traders to woo slaves into the holds of his ships, to make his money from souls who were but numbers to him.

Returning home, he was led to read the book, The Life of Colonel James Gardner, written by Philip Doddridge. Gardner had been killed in 1745 during the Jacobite rebellion. Newton saw his own life closely paralleled by that of Gardner, who had been converted by reading Isaac Watts' words:

The world beheld the glorious change
And did Thine hand confess;
My tongue broke out in unknown strains
And sung surprising grace.

Deeply influenced by the book, Newton began to think seriously of his future, but again he returned to sea as captain of a new slave ship, The African. A crisis came in November, 1754, when at home on furlough he suffered a slight stroke. Indeed, "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." It was the end of Newton's days as a mariner. He was forced to take a job as tide surveyor at Liverpool.

From now on, Newton fell under the influence of the great Calvinistic-Methodist preacher, George Whitefield. On his thirty-third birthday Newton spent eleven hours in fasting and prayer, seeking God's will for his future as a minister of the gospel. The outcome was that he linked himself with the established church, eventually becoming the Anglican parish minister of Olney. It is here, in the small rectory, that to this day we can find the words above the mantelpiece, "Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee." He knew what redemption meant, for he had not only been in bondage but had led many others into it. Well indeed could he repeat the words of the apostle Paul, ". . . [ I ] am less than the least of all saints." Because of the great depths from which he had been raised, John Newton knew, more than most of us, how great is the grace of God. It is little wonder that he became known as the preacher of joy, the writer who cries out:

Should my tongue refuse to sing,
Sure the very stones would speak .

This is the man who wrote "Amazing Grace." He knew of it from his own experience. His epitaph of his own choosing relates that all was of God's grace. He died in 1807; and in the parish church of Woolnoth can be seen on his grave:

John Newton, Clerk.
Once an infidel and libertine.
The servant of slaves in Africa was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.
In all 16 years at Olney in Bucks, and 27 years in this Church.

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.

*From a sermon preached by Samuel McCafferty, B.D., minister of the Ann Street Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, Australia. Mr. McCafferty recently completed a thesis on the Evangelicals in England in the Nineteenth Century.