"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..."
So begins one of the most beloved hymns of all times, a staple in the hymnals of many
denominations, New Britain or "45 on the top" in Sacred Harp. The author of the
words was John Newton, the self-proclaimed wretch who once was lost but then was found,
saved by amazing grace.
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 May 10, 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 brot 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 Whitefields
enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also met and came to admire John Wesley,
founder of Methodism. Newtons self-education continued, and he learned Greek and
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. Newtons 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
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 Newtons 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. Through the years other writers have composed additional
verses to the hymn which came to be known as "Amazing Grace" (it was not thus
entitled in Olney Hymns), and possibly verses from other Newton hymns have been added.
However, these are the six stanzas that appeared, with minor spelling variations, in both
the first edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the one nearest the date of Newtons
death. It appeared under the heading Faiths Review and Expectation, along with a
reference to First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16 and 17.
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
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