Amazing Grace: The Life and Story of John Newton

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”; this is a line beginning one of the most popular hymns in Western Evangelical Christendom. In our contemporary Christian culture we are bombarded with “worship songs”, declared so simply because they belong to the adult contemporary genre that we Christians love to call “worship music”. Many of these songs are moving and strong worship choruses, but the majority are shallow and lacking in theological depth; they have been churned out by teams of writers working behind the scenes of our big name Christian “Worship” Bands. Every once in a while a powerful song is written that is strongly biblical based and produced by artists experiencing God in real life; through its trials, pains, temptations, and joys. Sadly these are few and far between; this lack of deep scriptural songs, and the abundance of shallow praise music, has pushed many in the Evangelical Christian Church back towards the hymns of old. Many are songs that grew out of the pains and experiences of real life and songs that reflect the teachings of the bible, sometimes becoming theological treatise in and of themselves. It is in this body of hymnody that we find Amazing Grace; a song written by an ex-slave trader who did not consider it hyperbole to call himself a wretch and praise God for the saving work that only He could do. This man was John Newton, a pastor who authored only a few hymns. He was born to a Christian mother and a sailor of a father. His mother died as a result of tuberculosis when he was 7 years old;[1] this left him to be raised by his non-Christian father and stepmother. During these years, until his early twenties, John Newton would go through trials and would participate in many ventures that he believed deserved him the title of a wretch.

Now I have the cognitive understanding that as fallen man we are all wretches, but what could a man do that would lead him to proclaim himself as a wretch; a despicable man saved only by grace? In his teen years, from 11-18[2], Newton set out to sea with his father; this would set the tone for his early life, spending most of his early years on the open seas. After his father took a job as governor of York Fort under the Hudson Bay Company, where he eventually drowned in 1751,[3] Newton had a short stint with the Royal Navy. Against his will he was pressed into service as a mid-shipmen on the H.M.S. Harwich;[4] of this service his friend and biographer Richard Cecil writes “The companions he met with here completed the ruin of his principles.”[5] He was falling deeper into corruption, surrendering to a life without principle; soon enough Newton rebelled against the discipline of the Navy and deserted his ship, he was eventually caught and as a result was flogged and put in irons.[6] At his own request he boarded a slaver’s ship off the coast of Madeira and found himself in the service of the slave master on a few islands just south of Sierra Leone.[7] Of this experience John Piper writes; “for about a year and a half he lived as a virtual slave in almost destitute circumstances. The wife of his master despised him and treated him cruelly. He wrote that even the African slaves would try to smuggle him food from their own slim rations.”[8] He subsequently worked with an employer who treated him a little better,[9] but Newton was in need of rescue. In 1747 he was rescued by a friend of his father’s,[10] and he found himself on a path that would lead to his salvation. Later in that year Newton was sailing on the Greyhound, a ship from Liverpool, and on its journey home it was overtaken by a massive storm. During his travels Newton had been reading Thomas Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and during the storm lines from this book struck him, as well as a passage in Proverbs, and Newton decided to give his life to Christ.[11] It was not an instantaneous journey, later Newton would write; “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”[12] Newton was still involved in the slave trade for a few more years,[13] but he gave up life at sea due to ill-health.[14] After his life as a sailor he pursued ministry and eventually found himself ordained into the Anglican Ministry and was given the parish at Olney in Buckinghamshire.[15] It was here that he would write the hymns of the Olney hymnal, hymns that have stuck with the church for more than two centuries.

While in Olney he became the advisor and intimate friend of English poet William Cowper. [16] Cowper had many bouts of depression, but was challenged by Newton to write hymns for Thursday evening prayer meetings at the Olney parish. The 68 hymns Cowper wrote, before he died of an illness, were combined with 280 hymns Newton wrote to form the popular compilation Olney Hymns.[17] Despite his lack of literary prowess, especially when seen in light of Cowper’s genius, Newton wrote hymns that would be influential hundreds of years beyond his time. It is in light of these seeming deficiencies that most modern scholars would look at Newton’s hymns; but his own intention with writing was to use the devices of poetry “sparingly and with great judgment”.[18] He wrote hymns that would be used in public worship by “plain people,”[19] that would communicate truths with “perspicuity, simplicity, and ease”,[20] and that would be of use to the “weak and poor of [the Lord’s] flock.”[21] His ventures into hymnody were only taken up to achieve pastoral ends;[22] he wrote hymns not as a great musician but as a pastor with a desire to shepherd the flock God had put under his guidance. Newton’s hymns where hewn out of raw Scripture; many were written for the weekly prayer meetings he was running and Donald E. Demaray writes that their purpose was; “to reinforce the sermon.”[23] He would compose hymns to accompany his sermons and encapsulate his teachings on specific passages.[24] The Olney hymn book was unlike many of its contemporary works in that it “is weak as a system of praise”,[25] but because Newton was writing his hymns along with his teachings and exegesis; “from a doctrinal point of view the hymns are complete to a remarkable degree, for there are whole hymns or parts of hymns on the doctrines of God, creation, providence, Christ, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures, the Church, and eternal life.”[26] Newton wrote deeply theological hymns that dealt with the foundational truths of the Christian faith; it is because of this lyrical depth, and not poetical genius, that his hymns have survived the sands of time. It is because of the truths contained in his hymns that we know his name today, and that the Church has felt his influence.

Newton’s venture into hymnody had an immediate effect on the Church of his day, and still influences our music in the 21st century. After the Olney Hymns was published it became the chief hymnal of the Anglican Church, under which Newton had been ordained. [27] It was reprinted throughout England and America over the next century.[28] Olney Hymns has been lauded as “one of the most substantial achievements of eighteenth-century hymnology”;[29] Newton’s hymns contained within this volume have permeated nearly every hymnal since its publishing as his first, and only, excursion into the world of hymnody.[30] His impact on hymnology is so profound that most surveys of hymnody from the twentieth century “include a section, if not an entire chapter, devoted to Newton and Cowper’s Olney Hymns, and the significance of its publication is almost universally acknowledged in hymn studies.”[31] Beyond his impact in the world of hymnody, John Newton’s works have found themselves imprinted on the church today, and even secular arts and music. The three most known hymns from Newton’s work are Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken and How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, and Amazing Grace. The latter has “been adapted by scores of performers, from country music to gospel to folk singers. . . . Judy Collins sings in St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, and talks about how this song carried her through the depths of her alcoholism. Jessye Norman sends ‘Amazing Grace’ soaring across the footlights at Manhattan Center stage. While in Nashville, Johnny Cash visits a prison and talks about the hymn’s impact on prisoners. The folk singer, Jean Ritchie, shares a reunion of her extended family in Kentucky where everyone rejoices together. ‘Amazing Grace’ is also featured in the repertory of the Boys Choir of Harlem, which performs the hymn in both New York and Japan.”[32] Within the church it has been rearranged and released by many different artists desiring to give the Church praise songs to use in congregational worship. It is hard to find a church that does not use a form of Amazing Grace during their praise and worship services. This song is probably Newton’s most enduring legacy; coming out of both Newton’s life experience and an amazing survey of Biblical allusions[33] it is a powerful hymn that focus’ on God’s unmerited love and favor poured out on all believers so that we might be saved.

While John Newton’s influence on church music may not be as great as those who have changed the very face of the way Church does music, his rich theological contribution to hymnody has left a lasting impression. He died at the ripe old age of 82, on December 21 1807,[34] and left in his wake a rich treasure of changed lives, powerful hymns, and influential writings. The epitaph he left to be written on his grave stone gives beautiful testimony to both his life, and his ministry;

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, and pardoned, And appointed to preach the Faith He had long labored to destroy.[35]


[1] Mark Galli, Ted Olsen; 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 88.

[2] John Piper, “John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Volume 6 6, no. 4 (Winter 2002; 2006): 24.

[3] B. H. L., “John Newton,” Eclectic Ethereal Encyclopedia, n.d., http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ccel/eee.toc.html.

[4] Piper, “Newton,” 24.

[5] Quoted in Ibid.

[6] Galli, 131 Christians, 89.

[7] H. L., “John Newton.”

[8] Piper, Newton, 24.

[9] H. L., “John Newton.”

[10] Piper, Newton, 24.

[11] Olsen 89

[12] Piper, “Newton,” 25.

[13]John Piper has him at sea from 1748-1754, at least one year of this was as a captain of a slave trader. Piper, Newton, 24–25.

[14] Eclectic Ethereal Encyclopedia, n.d., http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ccel/eee.

[15] Galli, 131 Christians, 89.

[16] Elgin S. Moyer, Who Was Who in Church History, Revised. (Chicago, Illinois: The Moody Bible Institute, 1968), 306.

[17] Galli, 131 Christians, 89.; Szczesniak has 67; Daniel Szczesniak, “Poetic Pedantry or Pastoral Passion: Olney Hymns and John Newton’s Old Testament Hermeneutic,” Churchman 123, no. 1 (2009): 12, http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/churchman/123-01_009.pdf.

[18] John Newton, Olney Hymns (OLNEY Buckinghamshire, England; The Cowper and Newton Museum 1979): Preface. Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/newton/olneyhymns.toc.html [accessed October 4, 2012].

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22]Szczesniak, “Poetic Pedantry,” 11.

[23] Ibid., 12.

[24] Ibid., 13.

[25] Donald E. Demaray, quote found in Ibid., 12.

[26] Donald E. Demaray, quote found in Ibid.

[27] Vinita Hampton Wright, “The Golden Age of Hymns: A Gallery of the Hymn Writers’ Hall of Fame,” Christian History, 1991.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Szczesniak, “Poetic Pedantry,” 9.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Piper, Newton, 22.

[33] Szczesniak, “Poetic Pedantry,” 17–20.

[34] Piper, Newton, 26.

[35] Charles S. Nutter D.D., Wilbur F. Tillett D.D.; The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1915): 429. Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/nutter/hymnwriters.toc.html [accessed October 4, 2012].


Bibliography:

Eclectic Ethereal Encyclopedia, n.d. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ccel/eee.

H. L., B. “John Newton.” Eclectic Ethereal Encyclopedia, n.d. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ccel/eee.toc.html.

Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Hampton Wright, Vinita. “The Golden Age of Hymns: A Gallery of the Hymn Writers’ Hall of Fame.” Christian History, 1991.

Moyer, Elgin S. Who Was Who in Church History. Revised. Chicago, Illinois: The Moody Bible Institute, 1968.

Newton, John. Olney Hymns. OLNEY Buckinghamshire, England; The Cowper and Newton Museum 1979. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Calvin College. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/newton/olneyhymns.toc.html [accessed October 4, 2012].

Nutter, Charles S. D.D, and Tillett, Wilbur F. D.D. The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1915. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Calvin College.

Piper, John. “John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 6, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 22–25.

Szczesniak, Daniel. “Poetic Pedantry or Pastoral Passion: Olney Hymns and John Newton’s Old Testament Hermeneutic.” Churchman 123, no. 1 (2009): 9–27. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/churchman/123-01_009.pdf.

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