Some 35 years ago when I became a Christian, I had always wanted to know the composer of this beautiful hymn. This hymn was sung when I first attended a youth meeting in a local church and it has touched my life ever since. I was truly amazed to know that it was composed by a former “slave trader.” Slave trading was an “in thing” in those days and many slaves were tortured, abused and killed. Slaves had to endure the dangerous journey by sea. Many were perished by sickness and extreme working conditions. In the Bible, God created all men to be equal but this was a dark history of mankind where human beings were captured and transacted as commodities. The hymn was truly “God’s amazing grace” story, about a loving God who chose the weak things of the world to confound the strong. The foolish things to shame the wise.
John Newton was miraculously delivered from a fierce storm in 1748 at the age of 23. His ship was almost destroyed and closed to sinking when he said a simple prayer to the Almighty God for His help. God answered that simple prayer and closed the huge leaking gap at the side of the ship supernaturally. Somehow the ship managed to “limp” back to port. Their last meal for the sailors was cooking on the stove. And just when the ship safely returned to harbor, the violent wind and storm started all over again. The timing was just perfect. John Newton eventually gave up his slave trading job and pursued after God who answered his prayer in his deepest hour of need.
Excerpts from his life story :
Deliverance (March 21, 1748)
The ship “Greyhound” had been thrashing about in the north Atlantic storm for over a week. Its canvas sails were ripped, and the wood on one side of the ship had been torn away and splintered. The sailors had little hope of survival, but they mechanically worked the pumps, trying to keep the vessel afloat. On the eleventh day of the storm, sailor John Newton was too exhausted to pump, so he was tied to the helm and tried to hold the ship to its course. From one o’clock until midnight he was at the helm.
With the storm raging fiercely, Newton had time to think. His life seemed as ruined and wrecked as the battered ship he was trying to steer through the storm. Since the age of eleven he had lived a life at sea. Sailors were not noted for the refinement of their manners, but Newton had a reputation for profanity, coarseness, and debauchery which even shocked many a sailor.
That day at the helm, March 21, 1748, was a day Newton remembered ever after, for “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” Many years later, as an old man, Newton wrote in his diary of March 21, 1805: “Not well able to write; but I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer, and praise.” Only God’s amazing grace could and would take a rude, profane, slave-trading sailor and transform him into a child of God. Newton never ceased to stand in awe of God’s work in his life.
Rector (A Clergy) reveals the evils of slavery
In 1779 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. His ministry included not only the London poor and the merchant class but also the wealthy and influential. William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament and a prime mover in the abolition of slavery, was strongly influenced by John Newton’s life and preaching. Newton’s Thoughts on the African Slave Trade, based on his own experiences as a slave trader, was very important in securing British abolition of slavery. Missionaries William Carey and Henry Martyn also gained strength from Newton’s counsel.
Newton lived to be eighty-two years old and continued to preach and have an active ministry until beset by fading health in the last two or three years of his life. Even then, Newton never ceased to be amazed by God’s grace and told his friends, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
John Newton wrote his own epitaph, and he said, “I earnestly desire that no other monument, and no inscription but to this import, may be attempted for me”.
“John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, preserved, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy”.
“Amazing Grace” was a Christian signature hymn that was sung everywhere and in almost all Christian gatherings for over 200 years. What a joy to sing this beautiful hymn and to know the exact significance of the song. It’s all about the amazing love of God for sinners and His willingness to help us in our times of need. In Christ Jesus, it was all made possible for you and me. This is a story of ordinary people whose lives have impacted the world.
Let’s pray for a better world that’s filled with love and peace for one another.
I have posted John Newton’s life story below and pray that it will bless your hearts.
John Newton – Evangelical divine and hymn writer
(1725 – 1807)
Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In 1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.
Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John’s father. John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one which plied the slave trade.
Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions. However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance.” He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.
For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of March 21, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace has bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” He continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely.
In 1750 he married Mary Catlett, with whom he had been in love for many years. By 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring forever. During his days as a sailor he had begun to educate himself, teaching himself Latin, among other subjects. From 1755 to 1760 Newton was surveyor of tides at Liverpool, where he came to know George Whitefield, deacon in the Church of England, evangelistic preacher, and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church. Newton became Whitefield’s enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Newton’s self-education continued, and he learned Greek and Hebrew.
He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was subsequently ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other parts of the country. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends.
Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and on his tours to other places. They held not only a regular weekly church service but also began a series of weekly prayer meetings, for which their goal was to write a new hymn for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity. The first edition, published in 1779, contained 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.
Among Newton’s contributions which are still loved and sung today are “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” as well as “Amazing Grace.” Composed probably between 1760 and 1770 in Olney, “Amazing Grace” was possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service. The origin of the melody is unknown. Most hymnals attribute it to an early American folk melody. The Bill Moyers special on “Amazing Grace” speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.
Newton was not only a prolific hymn writer but also kept extensive journals and wrote many letters. Historians accredit his journals and letters for much of what is known today about the eighteenth century slave trade. In Cardiphonia, or the Utterance of the Heart, a series of devotional letters, he aligned himself with the Evangelical revival, reflecting the sentiments of his friend John Wesley and Methodism.
In 1780 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, St. Mary Woolchurch, in London. There he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21, 1807. Infidel and libertine turned minister in the Church of England, he was secure in his faith that amazing grace would lead him home.
Source : http://www.ccel.org/ccel/newton