John Newton was an English sailor, in the Royal Navy for a period, and later a captain of slave ships. He became ordained as an evangelical Anglican cleric, served Olney, Buckinghamshire for two decades, and also wrote hymns, known for Amazing Grace and Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.
Newton started his career at sea at the age of eleven, and worked on slave ships in the slave trade for several years with his father. 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.
It was a book he found on board--Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ--which sowed the seeds of his Christian conversion. When a ship nearly foundered in a storm, he gave his life to Christ. Later he was promoted to captain of a slave ship. Commanding a slave vessel seems like a strange place to find a new Christian. But at last the inhuman aspects of the business began to pall on him, and he left the sea for good. He later became a prominent supporter of abolitionism, living to see Britain's abolition of the African slave trade in 1807.
While working as a tide surveyor he studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life preached the gospel in Olney and London. At 82, Newton said, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour." No wonder he understood so well grace--the completely undeserved mercy and favor of God.
In 1750 Newton married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, in St. Margaret's Church, Rochester.
In 1767 William Cowper, the poet, moved to Olney. He worshipped in Newton's church, and collaborated with the priest on a volume of hymns; it was published as Olney Hymns in 1779. This work had a great influence on English hymnology. The volume included Newton's well-known hymns: "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!," "Let Us Love, and Sing, and Wonder," "Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare," "Approach, My Soul, the Mercy-seat", and "Faith's Review and Expectation," which has come to be known by its opening phrase, "Amazing Grace".
Many of Newton's (as well as Cowper's) hymns are preserved in the Sacred Harp, a hymnal used in the American South during the Second Great Awakening. Hymns were scored according to the tonal scale for shape note singing. Easily learned and incorporating singers into four-part harmony, shape note music was widely used by evangelical preachers to reach new congregants.
Newton's wife died in 1790. After her death, Newton published Letters to a Wife (1793), in which he expressed his grief. Plagued by ill health and failing eyesight, Newton died on 21 December 1807 in London. He was buried beside his wife in St. Mary Woolnoth. Both were reinterred at Olney in 1893.
Newton's tombstone reads, "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, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy." But a far greater testimony outlives Newton in the most famous of the hundreds of hymns he wrote:
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