John Newton died 200 years ago this month. He was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life. He is now best remembered for his contribution to hymn singing. In particular he is remembered for one great hymn: Amazing Grace.
This was by no means his only hymn. He wrote hundreds of them. When minister of the parish of Olney, he entered into a particularly fruitful fellowship with another great hymn writer: William Cowper. Together they produced a hymnbook called “The Olney Hymns”.
Amongst his hymns that we continue to sing are:
Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat where Jesus answers prayer;
Dear shepherd of thy people, hear;
Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, Zion city of our God; and
How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a believer’s ear.
While Newton’s enduring legacy may be his hymns, this was only one aspect of his colourful life.
His mother died when he was 7. When he was 11 his father took him to sea. His life at sea was filled with adventure, dangers, escapes, and sadly a sailor’s recklessness. He grew into a godless and degenerate man. He was once flogged as a deserter from the Navy. For more than a year he lived as a half starved and ill-treated slave in West Africa.
While travelling home from Africa in a storm, the 23 year old John Newton surrendered his life to God, but the implications of this new life in Christ took some time to alter him. For the next 6 years he continued to be actively involved in the appalling Atlantic slave trade.
In his thirties God prepared him for a life of public preaching. When he was 39 he was ordained into the ministry at Olney. He remained there for 16 years before becoming the rector of St Mary’s Woolnoth in the city of London. By then he had become a leading figure in the campaign against slavery. A great friend and mentor of William Wilberforce he just lived long enough to see the abolitionist victory in 1807.
During these many years in public ministry, he was noted as a fine preacher, a great letter writer, a wise counsellor and a great friend to sinners. He was always conscious of the great debt that the Lord Jesus had paid for him. He was a sinner who knew forgiveness. As his hymn announces: Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.
The recent film on William Wilberforce used Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” as its title. The actor Albert Finney portrayed an old John Newton in the film. I do not know how accurate this portrayal was, but one line in the film came from John Newton’s final year: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things—that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
His plaque in St Mary’s Woolnoth says
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk
Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.
Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,
And twenty-eight years in this Church.