Biography: John Newton: More Than a Hymnwriter

During his first pastorate in Olney, John Newton produced an amazing 282 hymns. Among those hymns are well-known favorites such as Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, and Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken. But Newton was more than a hymn writer.

Abolitionist By the age of 30, Newton grew to despise the trading of slaves. He quit the slave trade and became an ardent slavery abolitionist. One of Newton’s long-time friends was the aunt of a young man by the name of William Wilberforce. God used Newton’s influence to move Wilberforce against the slave trade. Wilberforce was a well-known British Parliamentarian who helped abolish slavery. Incidentally, the very year John Newton died, the United States enacted a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa.

Biblical counselor Newton’s closest friend was William Cowper. Together, they produced a hymnal called Olney Hymns. Given Cowper’s physical condition, this was a major accomplishment. Throughout his life Cowper battled moments of extreme melancholy (depression). It was at those times that Newton counseled him to get out of his bed, cross the street, and work in the orphanage. Some would consider this prescription to be unloving. In fact, this was sound biblical advice. Also, consider Cowper’s own words of Newton:

“A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had.”

Defender of the faith Newton was a prolific writer. Among his writings were biographies, histories, and various letters to friends. He wrote a series of letters to a preacher friend exhorting him to reject Arminian theology. The following are some excerpts from these letters.

For I believe fallen man, universally considered as such, is as incapable of doing the least thing towards his salvation, till prevented by the grace of God, as a dead body is of restoring itself to life. . . . he is so blinded by Satan, so alienated from God by nature and wicked works, so given up to sin, so averse from that way of salvation, which is contrary to his pride and natural wisdom, that he will not embrace it, or seek after it; and, therefore, he cannot, till the grace of God powerfully enlightens his mind, and overcomes his obstacles.

Newton spilled much ink in support of Calvinistic theology. He championed the cause of God’s sovereignty and warned others of the natural man’s spiritual inability. Why would Newton devote so much effort to promote Calvinism? Because for Newton it was neither dispensable nor trivial. Speaking of the doctrine of unconditional election, Newton wrote:

. . . if it [unconditional election] be indeed absurd, shocking, and unjust, the blame will not deservedly fall upon me, for I did not invent it, but upon the Scriptures, where I am sure, it is laid down in as plain terms that God created the heavens and the earth. . . .

Newton also warned Christians not to invoke mystical practices when determining God’s will. The following words are fitting even for our generation of Christians:

Some persons, when in doubt, have opened the Bible at a venture, and expected to find something to direct them in the first verse they should cast their eye upon. It is no small discredit to this practice, that the Heathens, who knew not the Bible, used some of their favourite books in the same way: and grounded their persuasions of what they ought to do, or of what should befall them, according to the passage they happened to open upon.

Although Newton is most known for composing hymns such as Amazing Grace, he has left us much more. He was instrumental in abolishing slavery. He is an example of a loving but honest biblical counselor, and a defender of the faith.

John Newton (1725–1807): The hymn writer who experienced “Amazing Grace”

Best known as the author of Amazing Grace, John Newton has one of the most remarkable testimonies of any hymn writer. God took Newton, a wretched slave trader, and made him into one of the most distinguished and influential Christians of his day.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear . . . John Newton was born to a sailor and his wife in London, England. His father was often on voyages, leaving Newton alone with his mother. Newton appreciated his father despite his cold, stoic manners. Yet, it was his mother who left an indelible impression on Newton’s mind.

Newton’s mother was a Dissenter. That is, she was a faithful Christian who did not join the Church of England. She made it her life’s career to invest all of her energies to educate young Newton. She taught him many hymns, catechisms, and required him to memorize Scripture. So precocious was Newton that by the time he was four, he was able to read the Bible by himself and had memorized two catechisms (Watt’s and Assembly’s) including proofs.

Just days before his seventh birthday, while his father was out to sea, his mother died. At this juncture, life changed remarkably for Newton. His father remarried. Though his father and new mother loved him, he no longer enjoyed their careful involvement. Newton befriended “idle and ungodly” children. He was sent to a school with an especially harsh schoolmaster. Some of his harshness however was of benefit to Newton. By the time he was ten, he learned to proficiently read Latin.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares . . . By age 11 Newton learned the sailing trade from his father. However, Newton proved himself to be unreliable. On one occasion, his father granted him three days leave. He made arrangements to visit friends of his first mother, in Kent, England. These friends had a daughter, Mary Catlett, of whom he said “I was impressed with an affection which never abated.” He extended his stay with her family for three weeks leaving no notice with his father.

In 1743 he was drafted by the British Navy. It did not take Newton long to prove himself to be an irresponsible soldier. Again, he went AWOL to visit Mary in Kent. For this and similar irresponsibilities, he was flogged and kicked out of the Navy. Those discharged from the Navy, were often sent to work on slave boats. He recalls that within one hour’s time, he went from sleeping comfortably on a British navy ship to working on a slave ship headed for India. This new assignment marked a turning point in Newton’s life. Slave dealers were not usually fond of discharged navy sailors, mainly due to their unreliability.
Shortly after he boarded the slave ship, he contracted a serious illness. His sickness was so great that he barely had the energy to lift a cup to his mouth. The captain’s wife, interpreting his lack of energy as characteristic of a lazy worker, especially despised Newton thinking him to be an unprofitable worker. When her husband was absent, she enjoyed inflicting misery upon Newton. She starved him and ordered her servants to throw limes and stones at him. She also taunted him by eating lavish meals in his presence, offering him only her dinner scraps. His situation was so grave that, feeling compassion for him, many slaves secretly brought him food.

In 1747 a sailor friend of Newton’s father found him in a hermit like state on the Gold Coast. He took pity on Newton and gave him free passage back to England on his ship. He showed great mercy to Newton, supplying him with food and clothing. Having the freedom to relax and enjoy the passage, Newton devoted himself to reading. Ironically, he read books that commented on Scripture. He said, “I did so with indifference as if I were reading a novel.” One night, after reading Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, a fierce gale threatened to sink the ship. The ship was in no shape to endure a storm as the sails and cordage were already in disrepair.

During the storm, one of Newton’s friends was swept overboard. Water started to fill the hull of the ship. The sleep deprived crew made repairs to, and pumped water from, the ship’s hull. In God’s providence, the ship was loaded with beeswax and wood, keeping the wreck afloat. Still weeks from home, the crew survived by eating the pig’s feed as the animals were lost during the storm. The crisis was so bleak that whispers of cannibalism could be heard among the crew. The captain blamed their troubles on Newton often calling him “Jonah.” Virtually every hour the captain threatened to throw him overboard.

With their last meal boiling in a kettle, they spotted Ireland. Exhausted from the laborious trip, with the looming thoughts of death, Newton had time to think of his spiritual condition. God used two things to awaken his conscience, the Scripture he learned as a young boy and Kempis’ book. On May 10, 1748, he trusted in Christ as his Savior and new Master.

The Lord has promised good to me . . . Although he was saved, he continued to work on slave ships for a number of years. In time, Newton became the captain of his own ship. The captain of another slave ship befriended him, taught him from the Scriptures, and educated him about the doctrinal battles of the times. It did not take long before Newton became one of the most respected slave ship captains. He even held Sunday services on the slave ships. The spiritual growth and maturity Newton showed, proved his worthiness to Mary’s father, who then allowed them to marry.

Newton came to despise slave trading and became a surveyor of tides in Liverpool. It was here, by God’s providence, that Newton was exposed to the preaching of George Whitefield, one of the greatest preachers the world has known. Newton then began studying Greek, Hebrew, and Latin to prepare himself for the ministry.

In 1764 he became an Anglican curate (pastor) at Olney, England. Newton, with the help of his friend William Cowper, wrote a new hymn every week. These hymns were compiled into the hymnal known as the Olney Hymns. It is in that hymnal that Amazing Grace first appeared in published form. In 16 years he wrote nearly 300 hymns during his ministry in Olney.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail . . . At the age of 55, Newton moved to London and spent his remaining years as a pastor there. In his final years, he continued to minister in spite of many ailments. Just before he died of “consumption,” he became blind and suffered a poor memory. He often testified to his parishioners, “My memory is nearly gone, but I can remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.”