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John Newton: From Disgrace to "Amazing Grace"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 1, 2022 3:05 am

John Newton: From Disgrace to "Amazing Grace"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 1, 2022 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Brian Edwards tells the story of America's most popular hymn that actually didn't come from America. It was based on the life of English slave trader, John Newton. 

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Our Daily Bread Ministries
Various Hosts
Delight in Grace
Grace Bible Church / Rich Powell
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
The Voice of Sovereign Grace
Doug Agnew
Our Daily Bread Ministries
Various Hosts

This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show, and of course our favorite subjects are music and history.

And when they combine like they do in this story, that's just a twofer. It's often been said that grace, like water, always flows downward to the lowest place. Nobody embodies this principle better than John Newton, author of the best loved hymn of all time. During his lifetime, Newton's story was renowned as one of the most sensational, sinful, spiritual, and historically important sagas of the 18th century. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1725, John Newton was born.

Here to tell the story is the A-team of John Newton biographers Brian Edwards, Jonathan Aitken, and Tony Baker. Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, about a mile downriver from the Tower of London, right by the Thames. Wapping was at that time a little kind of hamlet, although it was a very busy waterfront.

A thousand ships a day were coming in and out of London at that point. John Newton, as a little boy, could walk down to Execution Dock and see mutineers and pirates hanging in chains until three tides had washed over them. His father was a sea captain.

We don't know much about his father. Newton held him in both fear, awe, and respect. His mother was a very godly woman, Elizabeth. She took John Newton as a little boy, up to the age of nearly seven, to the dissenting chapel of Dr. Jennings. And it was quite famous.

It was full, and all kinds of interesting preachers came there, including Isaac Watts. John Newton, as a little boy, was more educated at his mother's knee, simply because John Newton Senior, Captain John Newton, was away on these very long sea voyages, and so he was very much an absent father. She had taught him to read, and she was beginning to teach him Latin. She taught him Bible stories, Bible verses, and the hymns of Isaac Watts, which had just recently been published, one of the first hymn writers. His mother sadly died of consumption, or tuberculosis as we know it, just before Newton's seventh birthday. When John Newton got the news of his mother's death, he was obviously very upset, and he was more upset when his father came home, and didn't seem to spend any time mourning his dead wife. Captain John Newton married almost immediately, just within weeks of coming home again. And John really was a typical product of an unwanted stepson, I suppose, really. He only had, I think, two years formal education, that at a not very satisfactory boarding school. At the age of eleven, he was a sailor on one of his father's ships, and shortly afterwards, when he was a teenager, he was a sailor in his own right, no longer on his father's ships, but ploughing the Mediterranean trade and the European trade. But there was one extraordinary experience that John Newton had, as about an eleven or twelve year old boy, on this first voyage with his father, which might be called a supernatural experience.

And it's the kind of dream which J.R.R. Tolkien might have scripted. He was just offshore from Venice, and a figure appeared and gave him a ring and told him to look after it. He was told that if he looked after this ring, all would be well with his life, but he must care for it. That figure disappeared, and another one came and mocked the value of that ring, telling him that it was a waste of time and he need not bother about it at all, and eventually inveigled the ring away from Newton so that Newton threw it into the sea. And at that moment in his dream, he saw that the whole of Venice seemed to be engulfed in flames. Then the first person appeared in his dream, came back to him, and showed him the ring that he had rescued from the water, and Newton put out his hand and said, oh, let me have that ring.

And the figure said, no, you cannot be trusted with it, but at such a time as you need it, it and all that it represents will be available for you. He thought very little more of that dream until quite later in life, when he came to realise that it was really a parable of his life. He went on with his voyaging and then came back from one of his voyages as a merchant sailor. He decided he'd go down to the family in whose home his mother Elizabeth had died, and the eldest daughter was called Mary.

She was 14 years old, and the moment John set eyes on Mary, he fell, in his own words, madly in love with her. And he mooned around in a lovesick sort of way the town of Chatham, and this mooning around got him into disaster. Newton was press ganged in Chatham, and that word perhaps takes some explanation. It was the law of the land that the Royal Navy could impress, which meant compulsory recruit under pressure, any able-bodied man. And John Newton was grabbed and impressed into service as a seaman. He now becomes a sailor on board a man of war.

HMS Harwich was a fourth-rate man of war, but it had 300 men on board. Because his father was a well-known merchant captain, and because he himself was not exactly a landlubber, and he had good nautical experience, he was immediately promoted to a midshipman, which was the bottom rung of the officer class, if you like. He progressively threw off this Christian background. His profanity was such, they say, in his language, that even hardened sailors could keep their distance. But he had been reading a book called The Characteristics of Men, Manners, and so on. So it was a book that led his mind well away from any faith in God.

And it helped him on his downhill spiral, morally and philosophically, because it now gave him the reasons why he was not a Christian. Morality was for John Newton to make up from now on. And you've been listening to some of the foremost experts on the life of John Newton, as we always do. We try to bring you the best historians on any given subject. But before we come back, the author, the writer of Amazing Grace, John Newton's story continues here on Our American Stories. For more information on America like we do, please go to and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Simply go to or contact your local agent today. And we continue with Our American Stories and the story of John Newton, who was born on this day in 1725. Let's return to more of John Newton's story. Things got worse for him on the man of war at the very time when he thought they were going to get better. He was put on shore as a young midshipman in charge of a party of sailors to bring in stores for the ship.

It was mainly fresh water that they required. And he saw his opportunity of deserting his ship and walking to Plymouth to reach his father. And he was captured by soldiers who were on the lookout for deserters. He was put into chains, was brought back to the Harwich, and he was publicly flogged. Thirty-nine lashes across his bare back for deserting his ship. Now that was a very serious punishment for a very serious charge.

He could have actually been put to death and many died under the lash. He lay on his back, sore from the flogging, furious with himself, very angry with his captain. He thought of suicide, he thought of killing his captain, and the ship sailed. Eventually the ship arrived at Madeira where, by quite a remarkable occurrence, he was able to be exchanged for some sailors on board a merchant ship. Back in the 18th century, the Royal Navy could not only press gang young men, it could exchange or swap young sailors for better sailors who they came across anywhere, provided they were subjects of the English crown. But he had to go and serve on a merchant ship which was called the Pegasus.

And the Pegasus was what was sometimes called a guinea man, which just meant a ship which went off to the coasts of African Guinea to trade. He managed to get himself released from his duties as a merchant seaman and to start working as an apprentice to a white man who traded on the shores of Africa. The white slave traders operated from the coast and it was the black chiefs that brought people from the inland and sold them to the white slave traders on the coast. But that wasn't working fast enough and so fairly soon the white slave traders were moving inland to do their own dirty work for themselves. So I think in these ways he thought he could make progress, but when the man with whom he was working was away, his wife, who was quite high up in the tribal hierarchy... She took a great dislike to John Newton and she actually treated him as a white slave. She put him in chains, she starved him, she ill-treated him.

He was treated more like a dog than any kind of human being and sometimes he was so hungry at nights that he had to go and try and find some roots to eat, which of course didn't do him much good. And sometimes even some of the local slaves brought him some of their own limited supplies out of compassion. Another slave trader who for some reason took a liking to this strange young man who was being treated like a white slave, bought his release from Amos Clow.

John Newton then moved with his new boss who treated him much more as a partner to another part of the African coast. Really he decided that he would simply stay in Africa and eventually he went down the coast to somewhere called Kitam. It was from there that a fellow trader tried to signal passing vessels. If you lit a fire and the passing vessel saw the smoke rising, then they'd take that as an invitation to come in and trade. And this fellow trader saw a vessel, so he lit a fire and the timing was extraordinary. Newton's colleague went on board the ship to do trade and pick up items that they needed and almost the first question the ship's captain asked was do you happen to know of a man called Newton on the coast hereabouts? Apparently the ship's captain had met up with John Newton's father before he left England and John Newton's father had said if you ever find my son on the coast of Africa, I want you to bring him back.

Now this sounded like a sort of seafarers version of looking for a needle in a haystack. The colleague of Newton said well as it happens, I know exactly where the man you're looking for is. Newton was reluctant to go on board. He was now just about to make for the first time some money for himself. He hadn't got and made a penny so far and he thought he could make some money. And there were only two things that enticed him back home. One was the story that the ship's captain told him that he had information that Newton had inherited quite a small fortune and if he were to come back he could enjoy it, which was a whole load of rubbish.

It was completely untrue. But the other thing attracted him was the thought of Mary because on his own account not a day had gone by without him thinking of Mary. So he took passage on the Greyhound and he upset the captain and by the same token pleased the crew by making up songs about the ship and the captain without actually mentioning the captain by name. And the captain was really fed up with him and wished he'd never taken him on board. And yet he did come across in the course of the journey Thomas at Kempis's imitation of Christ.

And at some point he started reading and he just started asking the question, supposing all this is true. Well then came the great storm and Newton was asleep but was caught up on deck and it obviously was a very big storm indeed. Now again as on so many other instances his life was quite extraordinary preserved because just as he was going up on deck I think the captain sent him back to get a knife or gain something like that. And the fellow who was following him up on deck was immediately swept overboard. As the ship broken and wallowing in the Atlantic struggled to keep itself afloat the whole crew including Newton thought that this must be the end. And on one occasion Newton in his rather confident way said oh this will be a good thing to talk about over a jug when we get back home.

And one of the crew members said no it's too late now. And that got Newton thinking. And lashed to the tiller or the pumps because they had to take turns at both Newton began running over in his mind many of the verses of scripture and doubtless some of the hymns of Isaac Watts that he had learned from his mother as a little boy. He found himself condemned by the verses he knew. And it was at that time that in his own words God reached down and plucked him out of the depths. And he put a very wavering faith in God acknowledging that his life had been a complete mess.

And he had ruined all that God had given him and spoiled the treasure that his mother had taught him. And he made a commitment of faith. And at some point he said to the captain something like if the Lord doesn't have mercy on us we're all lost. And I think the captain noticed that because to hear this particular profane infidel talking about the Lord was quite a surprise. But eventually they just kept afloat and they went into Lough Swilly on the west coast of Ireland. And the first things he went did was to go to church and to pray and give thanks for the fact that he had been saved as a result of his prayer. So he goes back to Mary in Chatham in Kent.

But still she gives him a little hope but no certainty. And he got no money at all because he got nothing for his time in Africa. He walked from Chatham in Kent the 250 miles to Liverpool. He calls it his long lonely walk because that's where he would be able to pick up another ship. This is a slave ship.

He's a first mate. And it was on this ship that he in his own words back slid as bad as before. He would allow the life on board ship and the life in the evenings to drag him down. And it really was a bad journey for him. But he was determined to go on with Christ although the life on board a slave ship was probably the worst of all the merchant ships.

And only the rough and roly ever ended up on board ship anyway. And you're listening to the story of John Newton who of course wrote the most popular hymn in history. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of a song and the man who wrote it here on Our American Stories. Music And we continue here with Our American Stories and the remarkable story of John Newton who of course wrote Amazing Grace. But the story of his life and what led up to it, well that's what's interesting.

Let's return to this remarkable story with some of the best Newton biographers on the planet. After Brownlow he took three journeys as a slave ship captain. He was actually in charge of the ship and the gathering of the slaves on what was known as the triangular trade. Out from England with items for barter to the west coast of Africa, picking up slaves, taking them from there either to the West Indies or to North America. And then picking up cotton, rum, brandy, things that the home market wanted and then coming back across the Atlantic.

That was the three legs of the triangular trade. In the 1750s when Newton was a slave ship captain, the general view of England, including Christian England, was that the slave trade was a respectable economic form of activity. And that sounds extraordinary but it is historically true. 1750s and 60s almost nobody, not even the Quakers at that stage, had really got to grips with the issue of slavery. It wasn't until you get right up into the 1770s, 80s and 90s that the groundswell of recognition of what is happening. And part of the reason for this is you have to realise that people in the home market, England, would be receiving all this cotton and brandy and sugar but had no idea really how it came. There wasn't the media.

Nobody was going out there taking films of slaves and the way they were treated and the cruelty and bestiality of it all. And so people didn't know. As they began to know, so they stirred.

He married Mary in 1750 and she was quite frail in health and often had to stay with her parents. And then of course eventually he met this very significant figure in his life, Captain Alexander Clooney, who was captain of a vessel but not of a slaver. And they recognised one another as Christians and Clooney really instructed Newton in the basics of the faith.

And that was a key turning point for Newton. But at the time, what disturbed Newton, and even when he writes his authentic narrative, he says, I was increasingly perturbed by a cause of life that was involved with shackles and chains and lead irons. And he said, I felt more like a jailer and a turnkey. And he didn't like what he was doing.

His conscience was stirring. The owner of his ships, Mr Manistee, was actually in the process of building him a brand new ship to send him out again on a fourth voyage when he suddenly took a seizure. So by mutual agreement, John Newton's career as a seafarer and slave ship captain was terminated. He managed to get appointed to a job which was called Surveyor of the Tides in Liverpool.

And this was effectively what we would call a chief customs officer. His job was he had a boat with half a dozen oarsmen and every incoming ship to the docks at Liverpool, he was to be rowed out and search them for contraband. His experience meant he had a pretty good idea where things would be hidden on any ship. But this gave him a great amount of time to sit in his little hut as he was given with a fire and a lamp and study and read. And that's where he continued to do a lot of his studying and reading and actually where he first began to prepare his first sermons. Also, while he was in in Liverpool, he invited George Whitfield, the great evangelist, to come and preach in the city. And clearly the two men hit it off and he was enormously impressed because Whitfield was the most outstanding preacher of the 18th century. And I think particularly because of his own experience and his awareness of the hand of God and the grace of God in his own life, Newton found himself drawn to Whitfield's theology, which was robustly evangelistic but also believed that God is sovereign. And that we depend entirely on his grace in salvation in Christ.

So Whitfield became very much a dominant influence in his life. And obviously Newton began to think whether he might be called to some full-time ministry himself. And he did preach his first sermon in these years in the Presbyterian Church in Leeds.

His first sermon was an absolute disaster. During the afternoon, when he was having tea with his host, they said, would you like to go and prepare for the evening? No, no, he was perfectly confident. He'd done all this preparation, thank you. And he got into the pulpit and he began and within minutes he'd covered his material and all anything else fled out of his mind. And he came down from the pulpit in great sense of shame.

And he says that for some time afterwards he believed that everybody in the town was talking about him. That was his entry into preaching. As Newton started thinking more towards being a pastor teacher in the Church of God, he started pushing the doors. But the doors didn't open because although you would have thought that Newton with his gifts and his spiritual experience would be just a wonderful gift for the Church of England ministry, because he was tainted with Methodism, which many churchy leaders in the Church of England thought was simply fanaticism, he found that the door was closed. And after John Newton had had these several rejections, he was heard preaching a sermon by the Earl of Dartmouth. You should be ordained, he said to John Newton. And John Newton said, well, I've been trying to get ordained, but the Church of England kept turning me down.

The Earl of Dartmouth then had a quiet word with the Bishop of Lincoln, who was a bishop who had refused to ordain John Newton, changed his mind and said he would ordain him. A number of things to be said about him there. He was a very warm and loving pastor, which is particularly interesting when you consider that this man had been used to haranguing an unruly crew. He brought with him that gift of verse, which he had so badly used when he was at sea, making godless and ribald songs about the captain which entertained the crew. But now he began to turn this into verse for his people.

As he walked down the streets of Arnley, he listened to the women at their lace bobbins. And in order to keep them in time with their work, they would have little ditties that they would chant. And he thought, well, they can learn these. So if I can teach them hymns, they can remember the theology that I'm trying to teach them. So he would sometimes spend two or three days in his week not just preparing the sermon, but preparing the song that was going to go with the sermon. And then he would teach it to them after the sermon.

And that would really punch home the points that he had made. He started a Sunday school long before Robert Rakes started a Sunday school in the West Country. And kids from the Baptists were coming as well. In fact, that caused a bit of a problem because he devised the idea of giving little prizes for children who could remember verses and new answers to questions. And unfortunately, the Baptist kids were running off with all the prizes, and that caused a bit of tension because they knew their Bible so well.

And he says he had to sit them down and give them a little talk on how to get on well together. And you're listening to the story of John Newton from slave ship captain to wannabe minister and to the author and writer of the greatest and most well-known hymn of all time, Amazing Grace. And I know some of you are wondering, what does this have to do with America? And if you've ever read any books by Steven Turner, the best being Amazing Grace, the story of America's most beloved song, the relationship between American singers, churches, and hymnals, and well, this story, they're intertwined. When we return, this remarkable story continues. John Newton's story was born on this day in history in 1725. Here on Our American Stories. And we return to Our American Stories and the story of John Newton from slave captain to wannabe minister and beyond and ultimately to the writer of the greatest hymn of all time, Amazing Grace.

Let's pick up where we last left off. He was informal so that instead of going around in clerical dress of the period, he would wear his old naval captain's coat, obviously believing he shouldn't throw something away while there was still some wear in it. So he was easy and approachable. Newton was encouraged to write up, as we would say today, his testimony. And so he produced what's called the authentic narrative. After the publication of an authentic narrative, people came from all over to see this man with such an extraordinary story to tell.

Even an admiral came to see this man who was once beaten at the grating and inserting his ship, His Majesty's ship. People would, you know, take a coach for 50 miles or 100 miles to come and hear John Newton preach or ride great distances. And there were two people in this category who became very famous, very influential. One was the aunt of William Wilberforce. William Wilberforce was at that stage a schoolboy. But this aunt brought William Wilberforce as a schoolboy to hear John Newton preach.

So that was to be a most influential and important encounter. And secondly, there was someone else called Cooper. William Cooper was a national poet, brilliant poet, a very sad character who suffered from very deep depression.

And for 18 months he lived with John and Mary. But William Cooper was brilliant at verse, of course, and together they wrote a number of hymns. And hymn singing was comparatively new because certainly until then, mostly in the Church of England, they just sung psalms.

So this was quite a new development. Cooper wrote some great hymns. There's one called God Moves in a Mysterious Way, His Wonders to Perform. But Newton was probably the greater hymnwright of the two, and perhaps his greatest hymn theologically was Glorious Things of Thee Aspoken. But his most famous hymn was Amazing Grace, and that was the hymn which will always be associated with John Newton's name. He wrote Amazing Grace as a New Year hymn.

He based it on a passage in Chronicles where the king is reviewing God's goodness to him. And that's what Newton wanted to do in Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound that Saves a Wretch Like Me. And he continually comes back to the word grace, which for John Newton, of course, meant God's undeserved mercy in forgiving him through the merits of Jesus Christ and because of nothing he himself had done. And then he rounds it off in what is his final verse?

The earth will soon dissolve like snow, the sun will cease to shine, but God who loved me here below will be forever mine. Unfortunately that verse somehow in the 19th century got lost and the new verse that everybody knows when we've been there 10,000 years got put in, but that has nothing to do with John Newton. Read the hymn as far as we know rather quickly in an afternoon. He didn't write the tune. The famous Amazing Grace music came much later and separately. And Amazing Grace, it never really took off in England. You know, if people said what are popular hymns? What are great hymns?

Which hymns were reprinted? Amazing Grace was never one of them in England. What changed the game for Amazing Grace was the United States. That Newton's hymn was reprinted in America, took off in the south of America. And that's where the tune comes from. It's an old plantation tune.

So the music and the words of Amazing Grace were married together. But then it became gradually a kind of America's spiritual national anthem. It was then sung by all sorts of recording artists. And by the sort of 1960s this had become the most performed and most recorded song, let alone hymn, in the history of music. And it's extraordinary the way it's gripped people. It seems that a lot of people sing it without actually realising what they're singing.

You sing it because it's good to sing, even though you don't necessarily understand or perhaps agree with the words. Obviously his influence was spreading quite widely. And he was invited to consider the pulpit at St Mary Woolnoth in London, which was in the City of London, right in the banking quarter. And he filled the church very quickly, just as he had filled Oney Parish Church. And again it was so crowded that some of the regulars started to complain that their pews were being occupied by all these newcomers.

And then they had to build a gallery again in St Mary Woolnoth. And of course it was a very much more influential kind of congregation, people from the city and from politics. Many of his congregation would be bankers. How were they earning their living?

Many of them through the revenue of the slave trade. So it is to his credit, by the 1780s and 90s, he is preaching against the slave trade, calling it blood money and telling his congregation that they can have nothing to do with it. In 1788 he wrote his famous document, Thoughts on the African Slave Trade. A very, very important document because he gave his reasons why the slave trade was so iniquitous in every way. A very carefully, very wisely, very prudently written document.

And this was distributed widely, printed widely and distributed and had a great influence. He was hugely influential politically, particularly because he was William Wilberforce's mentor. And William Wilberforce came to see him one evening under conditions of strict secrecy. It was considered unfashionable, if not risky and wrong, for an important young member of parliament to be seen consulting with a gospel preacher. Gospel preachers were thought to be a bit dangerous, a bit wild.

And the upper classes looked down on them. But Wilberforce, as a boy, had met Newton, heard him preach and so when Wilberforce was having a spiritual encounter with God, he wanted to try to contact Newton so he sent round a note which reads a bit as though it's sort of James Bond sending a letter to M and saying we must keep this quiet, we must meet completely privately, let's keep it confidential and Wilberforce came to Newton's house and Wilberforce immediately walked twice around the square to make sure the coast was clear and nobody was watching, so nervous was he. When he came in to see Newton, he told Newton about his Christian conversion and his zeal and Wilberforce had it in mind to become a clergyman, to join the church. Newton gave Wilberforce very, very wise advice.

He said, in effect, don't join the church, stay where you are and serve God through parliament. Now after that first meeting, two years later, William Wilberforce wrote in his diary a very famous expression. It was on a Sunday in 1787 and he wrote, God Almighty has lain before me two great objects, the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners. Manners meant morals, morality, the reformation of morality and that Wilberforce gave his life to, those two great causes and Newton supported him all the way through and as a result of that he was asked to give evidence to the Privy Council. He was in fact the only slave ship captain who ever gave evidence to the Privy Council. He also spoke to a parliamentary committee.

They became quite a lobby in England, driven very largely by a lot of the women who would not allow their families to eat sugar because it came from the spoils of the slave trade. Newton finally died in the year when the slave trade was abolished as Wilberforce himself finally died in the year that slavery in British territories was abolished. And Newton's last words are perhaps the greatest testimony to the testimony because when Newton was dying, a visitor came to see him and asked how he was and if he remembered this, that and the other. And Newton, who was very old, blind, knew he was near death, said in a faltering voice, Sir, I remember only two things, that I am a great sinner, that Christ is a great saviour. And you've been listening to the story of John Newton and in the end the story of the greatest hymn ever written and great work as always to Greg Hengler. John Newton's story, born on this day in 1725, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 05:48:59 / 2023-02-17 06:02:12 / 13

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