John Newton (1725—1807) was a Christian, abolitionist, and hymn writer best known for his song “Amazing Grace.” He was born in east London. At the age of 10, young John Newton began working with his father on ships and attended many voyages with his father. Although he also worked in the navy and on merchant ships, Newton did a great deal of work on slave ships that contributed to the English slave trade.
Not only did he import slaves to England, but Newton was also a staunch and outspoken atheist. Often, he would attempt to persuade others from their faith in God. He was well-known by his crew members as a man given to blasphemy, gambling, and alcohol.
During one of Newton’s voyages, a terrifying storm at sea occurred that made Newton fear and pray to God for his life. He realized the sinful state of his being and later marked that event as the point he began to understand he needed salvation. Newton’s frightening encounter at sea was not the moment of his conversion, but he did accept the gospel later, once he fully understood the grace of Jesus. Just as Christ provided salvation to the hardened Saul (Acts 9:1–19; 1 Timothy 1:13), He also saved John Newton.
After his salvation, Newton developed sympathy for the slaves he was transporting to England. He rejected slavery altogether in following years and became an abolitionist. Because of his experience on slave ships, he was able to reliably describe the mistreatment of slaves. John Newton’s work for the abolition of slavery in England, propelled by his faith, greatly influenced others, including Parliament member William Wilberforce. Wilberforce worked tirelessly to end slavery in the British Empire, and in 1787 Newton wrote Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade to aid Wilberforce’s cause. John Newton lived to see the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which made slave trading illegal. Slavery was finally abolished in most parts of the empire in 1833.
Soon after his salvation, John Newton applied to be a minister in the Church of England but was not allowed to fill the position for six years. He was ordained in 1764 as the curate of the church at Olney in Buckinghamshire, where he began writing hymns for his weekly prayer meetings. Newton’s collaboration with poet William Cowper produced a famous collection known as Olney Hymns in 1779. Included were many well-known hymns such as “Amazing Grace,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” These hymns have impacted Christian worship since Newton’s time.
John Newton’s life vividly illustrates that the “lost” can be “found” by Jesus (see Luke 15:24). Like the apostle Paul, who described himself as the “worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16), Newton, the former slaver, received the abundant grace of Jesus (verses 14–15). The story of John Newton proves that anyone can be saved by Jesus and radically changed for His glory. A quote attributed to Newton gives his testimony in summary: “Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was, a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge, By the grace of God I am what I am.”