This article tells the story of John Newton, the slave trader turned priest, who composed the most famous Christian hymn of all time: Amazing Grace.
John Newton was born in London at the beginning of the 18th century, in 1725. His mother was a dedicated Nonconformist (follower of the Protestant branch that did not “conform” to the authority of the Anglican Church). Little Newton, however, did not get to spend much time with her, because tuberculosis took her away when the child was only seven years old.
Newton remained in the care of his father, a sailor of repute, who undertook voyages in the Mediterranean sea and who, immediately after the death of his wife, sent little John to boarding school. There he spent his first two years without a mother. After his father remarried an Essex woman, John moved back in with the family.
When Newton turned 11, his father took him to sea for the first time, and for six years, they spent a lot of time together on the ship. The boy must have liked the life of a sailor, because despite his father’s plans for him—to employ him on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica—when he grew up, he chose to work on a merchant ship sailing the Mediterranean.
Who is the slave?
A year after being hired, the Royal Navy forcibly recruited him and appointed him a petty officer (NCO rank) aboard the Harwich. Life in the navy had nothing in common with the merchant life that Newton knew.
Shortly after enlisting, he tried to desert. However, he was caught and punished in front of his comrades. His superiors tied him to the grating and gave him 100 lashes before demoting him to the rank of a common sailor. Newton struggled to forget the humiliation he had endured and planned to kill his captain and then kill himself by throwing himself overboard.
However, he managed to leave this episode behind without committing a criminal act and transferred to a ship that traded slaves in West Africa. His troubles did not come to an end with this decision, but they definitely took him on a completely different path.
Newton had reached the position that his father had dreamed for him—he was a cog in the network that traded African people from Sierra Leone for work for the benefit of white people. Shortly after his arrival there, however, it became increasingly difficult to tell who the slave was, himself being unscrupulously exploited by the wife of the merchant he worked for.
Fortunately, his father, who had not stopped looking for him after learning of Newton’s attempted desertion, had sent a good friend, a ship captain, to look for him in the African port. On the way back to England, a strong storm led Newton to take stock of his life. He feared the entire crew would perish and prayed with all his heart for rescue.
A jolt moved the ship’s cargo toward the storm surge area and prevented water from entering the vessel. They were saved, and Newton would later say that this experience was the beginning of his conversion. He had left Africa just as he had arrived there: “I was very wicked, and therefore very foolish; and, being my own enemy, I seemed determined that nobody should be my friend.”
Nevertheless, when he arrived in England, he was a completely different man. While sailing from Africa to England he read the Bible and decided to become an evangelical Christian. He marked the date of May 10, 1748 on the calendar as a day of his rebirth and celebrated it for the rest of his life. However, the change that Newton experienced then was actually only the beginning of what his life would become.
The paradoxes of an incomplete conversion
Although converted, Newton had not renounced the slave trade, nor the opinion that slaves were “lesser creatures without Christian souls and thus are not destined for the next world.” The habits that life at sea had instilled in him were not going to magically disappear.
A slave trader in those days lived in constant stress, at risk of being faced at any moment with a mutiny on board. In fact, according to historian Adam Hochschild, about 300 uprisings of slaves captured and prepared by their “masters” for sale on other continents took place.
Most of them were suppressed, but vigilance was constantly necessary, because sometimes the captains could be betrayed even by members of the crew. In one expedition, Newton, who was the captain, learned that his subordinates wanted to hijack the ship for piracy, but luckily, he was able to stop the plot in time and took the culprits to port in handcuffs. He then thanked God for what he considered providential intervention to prevent a disaster at sea.
Newton’s spiritual journey, however, went through many transforming experiences after that stormy night on the ship. He began to teach himself Latin and, throughout his life, taught himself Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, French, and German—a paradox for those who knew that Newton had only completed two years of formal education at the boarding school. His mother taught him how to read at the age of four, and he used to say that at that age, except for the more difficult names, he read as well as he did when he was an adult.
Paradoxical is also the image of the slave master showing implacable harshness towards his subordinates, but who, during his captain breaks, invested his whole soul in his family. Together with his wife, Mary Catlet, he had adopted the two nieces from his brother-in-law (Mary’s brother), who had become orphans. In one of his letters, he told his wife that he was kissing the paper to reach her with all his love. He had loved Mary since they were children, and she had been by his side throughout the winding course his life had taken.
Struck by a violent fever, Newton had to give up water expeditions and felt that the illness was God’s call to do something more: he wanted to become a priest. However, his tumultuous history was likely not a very good recommendation before the prelates, so that neither the Anglicans, nor the Methodists, nor the Independents, nor the Presbyterians wanted to accept him as a priest. It was only after seven years of failed attempts that he succeeded in taking the Anglican parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire.
From that moment he became a source of strong Christian influence, being a worthy spiritual leader for deeply respected Christians today. Among them, we count writer and philanthropist Hanna More and the young abolitionist William Wilberforce.
Without much fanfare, the slave trader allowed life to change his mind about the horrors of slavery. At age 34, after giving up the slave trade, Newton wrote an essay in which he apologised “that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
He sent copies of this essay to every member of the British Parliament, and the text was so well received that it had to be reprinted to increase its circulation. Later, Newton associated with Wilberforce in his campaign to abolish slavery and even lived to see the fruits of this association in the document “Slave Trade Act 1807”, through which slavery was abolished in the British Empire.
To outsiders, perhaps the former slave trader’s change of heart wasn’t spectacular, because it didn’t happen instantly with conversion. Nevertheless, this experience of change—unknown to other declared or even militant Christians, who did not consider it hypocritical to mistreat slaves while preaching God’s love for mankind—is a lesson of spiritual life.
It is a lesson that teaches that repentance (the changing of the mind) is not a magic formula, but a mysterious and delicate process, through which the fine mechanisms of the spirit are calibrated, at their own pace, according to the rhythm of Heaven. In the midst of the tumultuous years of Newton’s transformation, from the realisation that God was shaping his soul in a revolutionary way, the world’s best-known Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, was born.
Initially, however, the hymn was entitled Faith’s Review and Expectation, a title much closer to the author’s personal experience—an experience with ups and downs, with constant re-evaluations of values and mobilising expectations. A history that breaks the simplified pattern of radical conversion and leaves room for a real struggle between good and evil in the human heart.
In the midst of this struggle, often incomprehensible from the outside, Newton was able to write to his wife: “When I take up my pen, and begin to consider what I shall say, I am led to think of the goodness of God, who has made you mine, and given me a heart to value you. Thus my love to you, and my gratitude to him, cannot be separated. (…) All other love, that is not connected with a dependence on God, must be precarious. To this want, I attribute many unhappy marriages.”
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Signs of the Times Romania.