“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound That Saved a Wretch Like Me”. These words belong to one of the most well-known spiritual hymns of the 19th century. The man who wrote them was indeed a wretched soul. However, his story proves no man is too horrible to receive God’s amazing grace.
In the late 1700’s, John Newton was a minister in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. An admirer of George Whitefield, Newton was on fire to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He not only preached, he prepared weekly prayer services. William Cowper, a poet, helped him write a new hymn for each of these services.
On New Year’s Day 1773, Newton delivered a power message on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. King David prayed immediately following Nathan’s prophecy regarding God’s plan to built His Kingdom through one of David’s descendants. David’s prayer starts:
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.” (NIV)
Newton wanted to emphasize the grace shown to David with this promise as well as David’s humility because of it. He hoped to demonstrate how Christians should respond to God’s mercy, with gratefulness and gratitude. To do this, Newton drew on his own experience for the day’s hymn.
Newton was born July 24, 1725, in London, England. At the impressionable age of 6, Newton’s mother died. Even though she had begun teaching her son about God, hoping he would become a preacher, Newton’s faith seemed to die with his mother.
By age 11, Newton was on the sea with his father. In 1744, Britain forced him into service on an armed Navy ship. Newton became quite comfortable with the sea-bearing lifestyle. So much so, his language and demeanor made even the roughest of sailors blush.
Newton was eventually transferred to a slave ship where he and the other crew mixed as well as oil and water. So, they left him in West Africa with a slaver trader. The trader gave Newton to his wife, who in return treated Newton as horribly as she treated her other slaves. A sea captain and friend to John’s father rescued him.
While on a return trip home, he experienced a violent storm off the coast of Ireland. As crewmen panicked, Newton tied himself to the ship’s helm, guiding her for 11 hours. At a moment of complete helplessness, believing all was lost, including ship and crew, Newton cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us.”
After the storm, Newton returned to his quarters and began reflecting on what happened. That day, March 21, 1748, became a defining moment for Newton as, “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” Years later, his March 21, 1805, diary entry read, “Not well able to write; but I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer, and praise.”
Though the event did not immediately make him a new man, grace did begin working on Newton. He eventually became captain of his own ship that still catered to the slave trade.
Newton experienced many changes over the next decade. He reformed his behavior and properly courted and married Mary Catlett. Newton did not immediately reject slavery, but he did insist on the humane treatment of slaves. He also started down the road of self-education, beginning with teaching himself Latin and theology. He eventually learned Hebrew and Greek as well.
Newton left captaining in 1755 after an illness. He continued in the field as a tide surveyor in Liverpool. During this time, Newton discovered George Whitfield. Whitfield’s ministry was inspirational to Newton. Whitfield’s friend, John Wesley, encouraged Newton to enter the ministry.
Historians familiar with Newton’s story agree “Amazing Grace” is an autobiographical account of Newton’s call to grace. One that eventually opened his eyes to the evils of slavery. In 1788, Newton published a pamphlet called, “Thoughts Upon The Slave Trade.” He revealed the ugliness and truth of the slave trade with this tract. Newton also apologized for his participation in the trade, writing “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
The popular pamphlet was widely distributed, needing to be reprinted several times. Even every member of Parliament received a copy. As a result, under William Wilberforce’s leadership, Great Britain outlawed slavery in 1807. A former advocate, Newton saw the abolishment of the slave trade before God called home on December 21, 1807.
The United States government passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807 as well, effective 1808. It prohibited the importation of any new slaves into the states.
Ironically, Great Britain did not find Newton’s song that amazing. On the other hand, “Amazing Grace” became an integral part of the Second Great Awakening in America at the turn of the century. During this time, just as Jesus did, ministers took the Gospel directly to the poor and uneducated. Simple songs, such as Newton’s, professed a powerful and needed message , grace.
No man is too far into the darkness that the saving light of Jesus Christ can not shine. Newton was an atheist, a libertine, and a slave trader. Yet Newton was saved. Not because of anything Newton did, but entirely due to God’s Grace. And knowing that, he humbly and eagerly witnessed and preached the Good News of Jesus Christ, bringing many to faith.
In his later years, Newton told friends, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
As we begin 2017 as a fresh, new year, may it be full of happiness, forgiveness, peace and most importantly, grace.
Happy New Year, America.
But that’s just my 2 cents.