Most people have heard “Amazing Grace” whether they go to church or not. It’s been played and sung most everywhere, including President Biden’s inauguration in a rousing rendition by Garth Brooks. However, do you know about its background, and can you really sing it as “your song”?
John Newton’s early life was one of sorrow, rebellion and sinful degradation. His downfall began with the death of his godly mother in July 1732, 13 days before his seventh birthday. Her main job was teaching John, who learned to read at age 3, and by age 4 could read “any common book.” She also taught him many Scripture passages, hymns and poems.
After her passing, John did go to school for three years but dropped out at age 11 to go to sea with his father, the captain of a merchant ship. You all know what they say about sailors?! Newton certainly lived up to that unholy generalization until age 24 having experienced despair, depression, dangers, near drowning, abuse, public floggings and even some miraculous escapes from death. Newton’s troubles were all self-generated as he lived without restraint, caring for no one but himself. He was one lost soul for sure.
In time, John became employed by a slave trader in North Africa. After becoming deathly ill, starving and unable to care for himself, gracious Africans helped nurse him back to health. Ironically, despite some brief periods of spiritual awakening, he remained firmly stuck in his pattern of degenerate behavior and attitudes.
When he became the captain of a slave ship, he was so “wretched” that his crew had no respect or regard for him whatsoever. Once when he fell overboard, they threw a harpoon at him instead of a lifeboat. They did have enough heart to drag him in with the harpoon. All the while, Newton was insensitive to the inhumane treatment of the Africans chained in the hold of his ship.
A subsequent stressful experience moved Newton to seriously consider his relationship with God. Several months later in May 1848, his ship encountered such a violent storm that it almost sank as cattle were washed into the sea, and crewmen tied themselves to the ship to keep from being swept overboard. For four weeks, the sailors were in deep despair as they spent most of their waking hours pumping out the water taken in by the seriously damaged Greyhound. Finally after near starvation, they reached Ireland’s shores. John was getting close to repentance but not quite there.
Later on a small island off the coast of Africa, Newton contracted a deadly disease. Burning with fever, listless and miserable, he wrote, “Weak and almost delirious, I arose from my bed and crept to a secluded part of the island; there I found renewed liberty to pray. I made no resolves, but cast myself before the Lord to do with me as He should please. I was enabled to hope and believe in a crucified Savior. The burden was removed from my conscience.” From that hour, John testified that he began to improve both physically and spiritually.
During this experience, John realized that he was indeed a sinner having fallen short of God’s holy standard like all of us (Romans 3:23) and that he could never save himself from eternal punishment in hell (Romans 6:23). However, he also believed that by God’s grace Jesus Christ paid for all of his sins (and ours) and the punishment he (we) rightfully deserved by dying on the cross in his (our) place (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). He then turned from his sins and put his full faith and trust in Jesus alone for his forgiveness and salvation, calling on His name (Romans 10:13) and receiving His gracious gift (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Two years later John married his teenage sweetheart and then studied for the ministry for the next 14 years before becoming a pastor in Olney, England, at age 39. In 1779, he published a hymnal containing 281 of his own hymns including “Amazing Grace.” The music we currently sing to was arranged in 1831 by an American, Edwin O. Excell.
Newton was always deeply repentant about his involvement in the despicable slave trade. He was a motivating force behind William Wilberforce’s long but successful campaign to make slavery illegal in England.
At age 82, shortly before his death, he still marveled at God’s amazing grace (free, unmerited, undeserved love and favor) that transformed his life completely. He said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!” Amen!
He also wrote his epitaph before his death: “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”
An amazing true story behind the most familiar and loved hymn of all time. “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch (outcast, woeful, despicable) like me! I once was lost (in sin) BUT NOW am found, was blind (spiritually) BUT NOW I see!” Is this YOUR testimony? Is this YOUR song? It surely can be.
Much of this information was taken from The Amazing Story Behind ‘Amazing Grace’, 1996, American Tract Society.