Amazing Grace// History of the Hymn

How many people would ever imagine a slave trader would be used to pen the words to one of the world’s most beloved hymns? How could grace be recognized and realized by someone so wicked?

Yet that is how John Newton penned the words to this truth-filled hymn.

John Newton: Life of a Sailor

Though Newton was born into a family where the Bible was taught, he himself chose to take the path of the world. His father was a shipmaster, and as such Newton went to sea at the young age of eleven. Life aboard ship was not the ideal place for a young boy to be brought up, and he quickly learned the ways of the sailors.

Months spent at sea away from the influence and guidance of his family took its toll on young Newton. He described himself as having, “unsettled behavior, and impatience of restraint”. This particularly affected his life in regard to a young woman he wished to marry.

Born and raised in England, Mary Catlett grew up spending time at parties and social gatherings with the Newton family. John Newton knew from the first meeting with her that he wanted to marry her.

“Almost at the first sight of this girl (for she was then under fourteen), I was impressed with an affection for her which never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart from that hour.”

John Newton

As they came of age to marry, Newton pursued her persistently. The problem was that Mary was a believer, and she would not marry him because he was unsaved. He wasn’t so easily dissuaded though, and would come consistently to call on their family when he was in port. It aggravated him that she would not marry him because of her faith.

During this time, Newton’s father retired from the shipping business, and Newton signed on with a merchant ship on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. He gained favor with the Captain of his ship, and rose through the ranks.

The very next year, 1743, Newton was kidnapped while on liberty in England. It was common practice during this time for British press gangs to kidnap sailors and force them to serve in the Royal Navy. He was knocked unconscious in the struggle and when he woke again he found that he was aboard one of the Royal Navy’s ships anchored just off the coast of England. Upon being informed that they were setting sail and weren’t expected to return for five years, he decided to take a chance and attempt to swim to shore. Unfortunately he was caught before he made it very far. The sentencing was severe. He was stripped of his rank, and sentenced to eight dozen lashes in front of the entire crew.

Recovery was slow and painful, but nothing compared to the melancholy ache that enveloped him from his homesick longing to see Mary and his father. The conditions he was forced to live in as a sailor pressed into service only made Newton rebel further.

John Newton: The Slave

The Captain of the ship became so irritated with trying to keep Newton in line, that he sold him as a slave in West Africa.

His new master gave him to his wife to be her slave. Conditions in Africa were worse than anything he had yet experienced. He was kept chained up and starved. The climate of West Africa was much different than anything Newton was accustomed to, and his health suffered terribly.

“I have sometimes been relieved by strangers; nay, even by the slaves in the chain, who have secretly brought me victuals (for they durst not be seen to do so) from their own slender pittance… When I was very slow recovering, this woman would sometimes pay me a visit, not to pity or relieve, but to insult me. She would call me worthless and indolent, and compel me to walk…”

John Newton

When his master returned from his voyages, Newton would plead his cause, informing him of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his wife. That proved a futile task, and his master “would not believe” him. Finally, however, his master agreed to take Newton on his next voyage.

At first things faired well between Newton and his master, but mid-voyage he was wrongfully accused of having stolen from his master’s supply. For the rest of the voyage he was treated worse than he had been at the plantation in West Africa.

“Whenever he left the vessel, I was locked upon deck, with a pint of rice for my day’s allowance. And if he staid longer, I had no relief until his return.”

John Newton

John Newton: Slave Trader

At this point in Newton’s life, things take an interesting turn. His master, unable to believe that Newton was in fact innocent of the accusations brought against him, sold him to another slave trading captain. Through this twist of fate, he began to become the slave trader instead of the slave. In fact he gained so much favor with his new master that he earned the money to buy his freedom and became the Captain of his own slave trading ship.

He slipped into the darkest depths of sin and unhappiness. Having known what it was to feel a whip across his back, he easily fell into the role of master and abuser. So great was his wicked lifestyle, that he became known by the men under him as the “Great Blasphemer”. He cursed God openly and condoned drunkenness and many other unbiblical things.

During one of his voyages to England in 1748, there was a great tempest that rose up. The ship was tossed so much with the thundering waves that it was near impossible to keep the ship on course. Newton, being the ship’s captain, had no choice but to try and keep the ship going in the right way. Being up on deck was highly dangerous, because the waves washed over the ship in torrents, pulling into the sea any who were not holding on tightly or attached in some way to the deck. It was so dangerous to remain on deck that he even tied himself with a strong rope to the deck. Newton remained at the ship’s wheel all through that night.

As the storm continued and grew worse than any storm he had ever seen, he cried out to God in desperation. The man who had blasphemed the mighty name of God was now begging Him for mercy. For the first time in his life he was truly contemplating where he was at and where he was heading.

“I thought, allowing the scriptures premises, there never was, nor could be, such a sinner as myself; and then comparing the advantages I had broken through, I concluded at first that my sins were too great to be forgiven.”

John Newton

The storm and winds eventually abated, and Newton and his crew finally made it to shore alive. Newton knew beyond a doubt that God was trying to get ahold of him.

John Newton’s life changed completely. When once he had been among the most crude, crass sailors, he was now a man whose life had been changed. The old ways of sin were no longer part of his life. He said later in his life:

“March 10th is a day much to be remembered by me; and I have never allowed it to pass unnoticed since the year 1748. For on that day the Lord came from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.”

John Newton

Amazing Grace

John Newton continued in the slave trade for some years after his conversion, not having been fully convinced of its evils yet. Finally, however, he recognized it for the sin that it was and gave it up completely. In fact, he became a staunch, outspoken abolitionist!

“I hope 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.”

John Newton

Upon his return to England, Mary agreed to become his wife, recognizing the great work God had done in his life. They were married and, though they never had children of their own, adopted Mary’s nieces, Eliza and Elisabeth.

Many years later he penned the words to one of the world’s most popular hymns. It was the story of his redemption.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come:
’tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
his word my hope secures;
he will my shield and portion be
as long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease:
I shall possess, within the veil,
a life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
the sun forbear to shine;
but God, who called me here below,
will be forever mine.

John Newton

John Newton’s life is such a beautiful example of what Grace can do for a sinner. He went from being a sailor, to a slave, to a slave trader, then to a man redeemed by the grace of God.

The words seem so much more powerful when you know the history behind them. Instead of deftly singing the words next time, contemplate John Newton’s life and how grace is able to change the most vilest offender.

A. M. Watson

Hebrews 13:8

Sources Cited:

An Authentic Narrative by John Newton

Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade by John Newton

The Cowper and Newton Museum

Hymn Histories by Alfred B. Smith

Letters of John Newton

Encyclopedia Britannica

6 thoughts on “Amazing Grace// History of the Hymn

    • Aww, I’m honored that it moved you! It is really incredible how God’s grace can change and touch the vilest offender! If it wasn’t able to, there would be no hope for any of us. 💗
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me on it!

      Liked by 1 person

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