JOHN NEWTON (1725-1807)
Vicar, Hymn Writer, adventurer, reformer.
John Newton was born in Wapping, London on 24th July, 1725. His mother was a strong Christian, a dissenter, and until Newton was seven years old she educated him well in matters of religion, but then she died. Newton soon forgot the loving teaching of his mother; slipping into foul language and bad behaviour.
Newton's father married again and he was sent off to boarding school in Essex for two years, before going to sea with his father who captained a merchant ship. He did not receive much love from his father and stood in fear of him most of the time. It must have been quite a shock for him to leave a loving mother for a distant and severe father. He made five voyages with his father up until 1742 when he was 17 years old.
Around the age of 12, Newton had his first brush with death. He was thrown from a horse, falling only inches short of some stakes that would have impaled him. For years it seems that the Lord had His hand of protection on Newton's life. This accident made him think about what would happen to him if he died, so he stopped his prolific swearing and bad behaviour for a while, but he was soon back to his old ways. He often wrestled between sin and the conscience he had from his mother's teachings and prayers. Every time he relapsed, he found himself going even deeper into sin.
The hand of God seemed to be on him again when he agreed to join a friend on a visit to a man of war, but he was delayed for a few minutes and missed the trip. There was an accident and his friend and some others were drowned. This again brought him to think about his soul - temporarily. He turned his mind towards religion three or four times before he was sixteen, but never with any lasting results. Newton wanted religion as a means of escaping hell, but he loved sin too much. Once he spent two years reading the Bible, meditating, fasting and praying and kept away from society in case he fell again, but it was just ‘works’.
Newton came home from the last voyage with his father at the end of 1742, and it was time to decide what employment he should have. A close friend of his father's, a merchant from Liverpool, offered to send him to Jamaica for a few years and to guide him in a career there. He was amenable to this suggestion and was a week away from leaving when he had an invitation to Maidstone from a close friend of his mother's who he had not seen for years. His mother and her friend had fantasied that their children would get married when they were grown up. On seeing this friend's daughter, Polly, who was only 13, he fell in love. He was so smitten that he says he thought of her constantly for the next seven years. This passion awakened him from the indolence of his life. The thought of her often kept his head above water over the coming years,
The idea of being away from Polly for four or five years in Jamaica was unimaginable, so Newton decided not to go. Instead, he went on a voyage to Venice and his mixing with rough sailors again brought him away from his attempts at religion and back to his old ways.
On the voyage back from Venice, Newton had a dream that really impacted him. In summary, a man gave him a ring and told him that while he had the ring he would be happy and successful, but if he lost it he would have trouble and misery. Then another man approached him; persuading him that his story about the ring was nonsense and that he should throw it away. After much persuasion, he took the ring off his finger and threw it overboard. Immediately he saw flames rising up in the hills behind Venice. His tempter then told him that all the mercy God had for him in reserve was in that ring. Newton was in agony over what he had done. The first man returned and asked the reason for his grief. On being told the man went into the water and retrieved the ring. Immediately the fires went out, but the man refused to give him back the ring in case he discarded it again. The man said he would keep it for him and would produce it for him when he needed it. After a few days of not being able to sleep because of the dream, Newton forgot about it.
On his return home at the end of 1743, he visited Polly again, and it was on his next inadvisable trip to see the girl he loved that he walked into a press gang. England was close to war and there was no way that he or his father could get out of his being put into the navy. After a difficult month, his father was able to get him appointed as a midshipman. It was here that he really started on the road to depravity. He looked up to and became friends with a man who slowly led him downward. He led him to a place where he took his ring off and threw it into the sea!
On returning home the captain gave him a day's shore leave, but he took much longer and lost the favour of the captain. His ship was to sail to the East Indies, but Newton decided not to go, so when put in charge of a boat to stop sailors deserting, he took the boat and deserted himself. The following day though he was arrested by soldiers and returned to the ship. He was kept in irons before being publicly stripped and whipped. He was degraded from midshipman and his friends were not allowed to speak to him.
He was in despair as fellow sailors treated him badly and he was facing five years away from the girl he loved. He had managed to persuade himself that he had been very badly dealt with, despite his deserving everything he got; blaming the captain for it all and even planning his death. His fear of the Lord and his conscience were no more. He considered ending his life, but the thought of how Polly would react constrained him.
Newton's ship was going to leave Madeira for the Indies when the Lord came to his aid. He had long not wanted to go to the Indies, instead wanting to go to Guinea. That morning, when he was sleeping, a midshipman told him to get up immediately. Not wanting to disobey him, Newton went on deck to find a sailor getting into a boat, as two men had to transfer to a slave ship that was sailing to Sierra Leone. He immediately rushed up to the lieutenants to beg them to let him be the second man. Amazingly, as they had no liking for Newton; it was agreed - he was out of the Royal Navy.
It turned out that the new captain knew his father and was agreeable to his new sailor, but Newton ruined things through his atrocious behaviour. His thought as he transferred that amongst people who did not know him he could be as abandoned as he liked. He was now twenty years old and he indulged himself in the full depravity of being a slaver. He had his way with any number of female slaves who came on board; he did everything he could to draw the faith of any sailor out of him - mocking and ridiculing them - all restraint was gone.
On arriving on the west coast of Africa Newton started to think about slavery being a rewarding career. A passenger on the ship, Mr Clow, had made a lot of money out of slaves and in fact owned a share of the ship, so Newton, on condition that he entered this man's service, was discharged from the ship.
Newton and his new boss built a house on a small island off the coast of Sierra Leone in order to set up a slave trade. He got seriously ill almost immediately and Clow left him with his native 'wife' who treated him very badly; scarcely feeding him or looking after his illness. Due to lack of food Newton had to go and dig up roots that he ate raw. This woman would visit him to show scorn and contempt. Clow took him on his next voyage and things went well until another trader said that Newton had stolen things. This was completely untrue, but Clow believed it and from then on treated Newton no better than a slave. He was given so little food he might have died of starvation had he not been able to catch the odd fish, and in addition he was exposed to long hours in wind and rain without shelter which damaged his constitution for years to come. He lost all resolve and all spirit.
During that year, with the help of a friendly slave, he wrote to his father two or three times, telling him of his dire condition and asking for help. Fortunately for him Clow agreed to his request to go and live with another trader on the same island. This trader used him as an assistant; clothing and feeding him properly. Newrton would help look after the business and had quite a lot of freedom - he enjoyed the life and even thought about settling there.
At this time a ship arrived, sent by a friend of his father. The captain looked for him, but on learning that he was quite a way away, he carried on with his voyage. By 'coincidence' Newton was only a mile from the sea at this time; he could have been anywhere, indeed he was two days late going deep into the interior. In February 1747, his fellow servant saw a ship and set a fire indicating that he would like to trade with her. The captain was not sure whether to stop or not, but he did drop anchor and on boarding her, Newton's colleague found that it was the very ship that was looking for him. On discovering that Newton was so close, the captain went on shore to speak to him. Because he was now so content Newton was indifferent to the offer of 'rescue', so the captain, eager to get Newton home, fabricated a story about him being left an estate of £400 and that his father had authorised him to 'purchase' Newton, if necessary, for up to half the value of his cargo. However, it was the thought of Polly that tipped the balance, so he agreed to go with him. The captain said he could stay in his cabin and dine with him and not be required to do any work on board ship. What an amazing way God orchestrated his rescue!
The trading vessel spent a year going 1,000 miles down the coast looking for gold, ivory, a wood used in dyeing and beeswax. Newton carried on his life of impiety and profaneness on board the ship. The captain was not at all impressed with his new passenger and thought he had a Jonah on board. Twice during this time he got into scrapes that could well have ended with his death, but God was there protecting him.
The journey home was a long one, about 7,000 miles. After about three months Newton picked up one of the few books on board, on the life of Thomas a Kempis and while reading it a thought came to him; what if this were true! This inconvenient thought was quickly ignored.
That night there was a huge storm, which was not good for a ship that had spent so long at sea and needed a lot of repairs. While Newton was asleep a huge wave broke over the ship and much of it ended up in his cabin. He then heard a shout that the ship was sinking so he rushed up on deck, but he met the captain on the ladder who asked him to get a knife. He returned to get a knife; meanwhile, another sailor went on deck and was immediately swept overboard. Another close shave. The storm had ripped away the upper timbers on one side resulting in the ship filling with water fast. They went to the pumps to remove the water and others bailed out with buckets. The ship would have filled with water and sunk, but the cargo was of beeswax and wood, which were lighter than water, keeping them afloat. They stopped most of the leaking through stuffing the holes with clothes and bedding and then nailing boards over the top. They tied themselves to bits of the ship to stop being washed away. He began to wonder if the Christian religion was true.
Newton was at the pumps from 3.00am until noon and then was too exhausted to do more. After an hour's rest, he took the helm until midnight. Being at the helm gave him plenty of time for reflection. He began to think of what he had learned about religion; the extraordinary turns in his life; the warnings and deliverances he had experienced; his licentious conversation and his mocking of faith. Clearly, he was too sinful to be forgiven! Bible verses he had known came back to him to confirm his conclusion. He waited in fear and impatience for his inevitable doom. He heard at about 6.00pm that the ship was free of water and there was hope of coming through the storm, then he began to pray. He wanted to know if the Scriptures were divinely inspired and warranted a hope and trust in God.
There was a New Testament on board, so he started to study it. Newton realised that to profess faith in Jesus without believing his history was like mocking Him. He read about the Holy Spirit and decided that if he got to know Him then the Bible was true. The Bible said that the Spirit would come to anyone who asked, so if he asked, he would receive and that would prove the truth that is Jesus.
The wind lightened and they began to recover, but the barrels their food was in were smashed to bits and all the livestock had been washed overboard. There was scarcely a week of food left and the sails were mostly blown away, so progress was slow. Newton spent his time reading the Bible and praying. After four or five days they sighted land. They were joyful and ate the remaining bread they had, but soon it became obvious that the land they had seen was in fact only clouds.
The situation got more depressing when contrary winds sprung up, that lasted for two weeks, blowing them off course to a part of the ocean where they would not expect to see other shipping. They only really had some salted fish left and half a cod would be the food of twelve men for a day. There was plenty of water, but few clothes and it was very cold. One man died from the conditions and from working hard at the pumps. They had to face the real prospect of starvation. Newton had the added problem of the captain blaming him for all their troubles and suggesting he should be thrown overboard. Also, Newton thought he might be right!
At their lowest point the wind changed to the optimum direction that meant the broken part of the ship would keep out of the water, and to a strength that was perfect for the few sails they had left. The next day they landed in Ireland, four weeks after their ship was damaged and with their last provisions finished. Two hours later a gale came up which would undoubtedly have sunk the ship. Later they found that they were in an even more perilous situation as they thought they had six butts of water left, but on inspection five were empty!
Towards the end of the voyage Newton began to realise there is a God and he answers prayer. The dire circumstances they were in led him to cry out to God and sometimes he felt he would be happy to die of starvation so long as he died a believer. Before arriving in Ireland he was convinced of the truth of the Gospel. He renounced his previous sinfulness, was serious again, he stopped swearing and was touched by the undeserved mercy God had shown him in bringing him through so many dangers. He proposed an immediate reformation of his character; however, he did not consider himself a full believer till much later. One would have thought that someone who had been delivered in such a miraculous way would have come to the Lord instantly with a wonderful revelation, but it was not that way for Newton.
Newton's father had given him up for dead, but he received a letter from him two days before leaving to be governor of York Fort in Hudson's Bay. His plan had been to take his son with him, but he left and died two years later. Before he left he visited Polly's parents and gave his permission for them to be married. (It is sad that his father never saw his 'new' son and that his son was never able to ask forgiveness for the way he had behaved towards him).
On arriving in Liverpool, Newton was warmly greeted by the owner of the ship, Manesty; his father's friend. Manesty offered him the command of one of his slave ships, but Newton thought it wise that he learn to obey properly before being in command, so he went on the voyage as the mate. On the voyage his interest in God declined and by the time they reached Guinea he had fallen back into some of his old ways. However, he was saved by getting a violent fever that drew him back to God. He came to a place where he had hope and belief in a crucified Saviour and his peace and health were restored. From that moment he was delivered from the power and dominion of sin.
Newton spent eight months trading from a long boat along the coast and going inland in search of new cargo. During this time he had many more escapes from danger. One such escape occurred just before leaving for the West Indies. As he had done many times, Newton was going to take a small boat to shore to pick up wood and water, but just before setting off the captain called him back on deck, saying that he suddenly had a thought that he should stay on board that day and he sent another in his place. Newton had always taken the boat for supplies, so he was surprised and could not get a logical reason for the change from the captain. The boat never returned and his replacement was drowned.
On returning to England he went straight to Maidstone, and with everyone in agreement, he married Polly on the 1st, February 1750. He went on another voyage in August; this time as captain of the ship, with thirty men under his command - he returned in November, 1751; returning to sea again eight months later. Spending so much time observing God's creation from the quarter-deck and seeing many prayers answered, drew him closer to God. Again, Newton reports of escaping many dangers on this trip, including a planned mutiny that was only discovered when two participants became ill with one dying.
On his last voyage he took with him a friend from his time in the Navy. They were good friends but Newton had been responsible for turning him into a dissolute soul, so it was in the hope that he could reform or convert him that he took him along. It was a difficult voyage as by seeing his friend all the time, he was reminded of the dreadful character he used to be. His attempts to reform his friend failed, so in order to get him out of the way he sent him off to trade, but the poor man got a fever and died.
On leaving Africa, Newton had by this time read the Bible several times and read several other books, giving him a general view of Gospel truths. However, his conceptions were often confused because he had never been under any pastor or been able to discuss religious ideas with anyone. On breaking up the journey home in St Kitts, he met an English sea captain who was a profound believer. They spent every night for the next month discussing godly matters and what the captain said increased Newton's understanding and gave him a greater passion for the Lord. One result of these conversations was that he became free of his fear that he would one day fall back to his old ways. He returned home in August 1754.
Newton intended to go to sea again, but the Lord had other ideas. He had not been entirely happy in the Slave Trade. Not that he had the revulsion that we would have today, more he did not like being a jailer, so he petitioned God several times for a more humane job. His answer came two days before he was due to sail when suddenly Newton had a kind of epileptic fit, that stopped him from sailing. The man who replaced him, most of the officers and many of the men died on that voyage.
Seeking greater knowledge of the things of God, Newton visited Samuel Brewer, a dissenting minister in Stepney; they became friends immediately. Brewer gave him a letter of introduction to George Whitefield, so he went to hear him at Moorfields. Whitefield was one of the greatest preachers the nation has ever known and Newton experienced the full force of his power. It set him on fire! He made many friends amongst dedicated Christians in London, and he grew closer to God by communing with Him in the wonderful countryside of Kent, seeing His wonderful creation all around him.
While wondering what to do next Polly became extremely ill for an extended period. This was brought about by the terrible shock caused by Newton’s epileptic fit, and although she recovered, the effects of the illness weakened her for the rest of her life.
The question of money was a concern, but to his surprise Manesty had managed to get him appointed as a Tide Surveyor, which solved the problem. Again, this came about in unusual circumstances. Manesty heard that a Tide Surveyor was going to resign, so he immediately wrote to the local MP asking for the position for Newton, but soon after sending the request he found out that the information was untrue, but the MP wrote back promising to make the appointment if the vacancy arose. The night Manesty received the promise, the Tide Surveyor was found dead in his bed, even though he was perfectly well the day before. The same messenger who had returned with the answer from the MP, returned to relay this new information. The MP immediately recommended Newton for the job. An hour later the Mayor of Liverpool, a much more influential man, asked for the position for his nephew, but it was too late - Newton had the job. The position was in Liverpool and he had 50 or 60 staff to organise and involved boarding ships as they arrived; charging them excise duty and checking for any smuggled goods.
From October 1755 he and Polly lived comfortably in Liverpool. He had a lot of leisure time and spent it mostly in books. He learned Greek, Hebrew and the Syriac language so as to greater understand the Bible.
Newton then had yet another escape from death. He was a very punctual man, but one day, due to business he was a few minutes late to board his boat in order to go and inspect a newly arrived vessel. Just before arriving at the ship it blew up!
A month after settling into Liverpool Whitefield arrived in the city. Newton went to so many of his meetings that he became known as 'Young Whitefield'. The two men became friends and dined with each other on several occasions. Like most evangelicals of the day the Newtons did not dance or go to the theatre and on reading a book by John Wesley, Newton was convicted to refuse the usual gratuities (bribes) from captains and owners related to his job. His boss laughed at him for taking this stand.
A year later the Seven Year War broke out which limited the amount of trade going through the port and therefore the work Newton had to do, so he went to Yorkshire where he had heard God was on the move. He became friends with William Grimshaw, parson of Haworth, who was the John Wesley of the north. It was while listening to Grimshaw that the idea of having his own church became appealing. Up to now any attempts at preaching had been pretty disastrous, but while in Yorkshire he was often asked to tell his story, and this helped him relax into preaching. In early 1758 some friends suggested he went into the church. After wrestling with this for a few months he set a day aside for fasting and prayer at the end of which he knew that the Lord wanted him to be a minister of the Gospel.
The question was, should he be a dissenting minister or in the Church of England. This was quite a decision, but a friend of Wesley's persuaded him that he would have far more influence as a vicar in the Established Church and offered him a curacy. Polly agreed, accepting that the family income would drop by three quarters. Newton had to go to the Archbishop of York to ask for ordination, but the Archbishop refused, not liking his 'Methodist' leanings, giving the excuse that parsons had to have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. John Wesley heard about this from Newton and wrote scathingly how the universities produced some really dreadful clergymen and yet a man of learning like Newton had been refused. Several dissenters offered Newton a church, but he refused, and he also refused Wesley’s suggestion that he became one of his itinerant preachers, mainly because he felt that his constitution, broken while a sailor, would not be able to stand the rigours involved.
Newton met a young curate, Thomas Haweis, who had been removed from his position due to his evangelical leanings. Haweis became a close friend and helped Newton with his Hebrew and Greek studies. Haweis heard a little of Newton’s story and was so interested that he asked Newton to write him a detailed account. Haweis then showed Newton’s account to the evangelical Christian, the Earl of Dartmouth. In January 1764, the Earl offered the out of work Haweis the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire. It was only a curacy, but the vicar was absent. At the time, Newton was about to accept the offer of ordination into the Presbyterian Church, but Haweis realised he should be in the Church of England, so he sacrificially asked the Earl to give the appointment to Newton. This time all went well and Newton was ordained on 29th April 1764.
Olney was not a rich parish, but it had been well served by Newton's predecessor who taught his people Biblical truths. The new incumbent built on what had gone before him and church attendance grew quickly so that within a year he had to add a balcony in the church. Newton was not a great preacher, his speaking was not always clear, he often spent little time in preparation and he was not graceful in his actions. However, he was so full of love for the people and so full of passion for their well-being that his deficiencies did not matter. His aim when preaching was to break a hard heart and heal a broken one. The tenderness and affection that accompanied his teaching made his hearers prefer him to many others. He went from house to house ministering to his parishioners, understanding that he was their servant and not the other way around and they soon grew to love him.
With his income much diminished Newton needed to compliment it. Two of his friends, Haweis and the captain he met in St Kitts, persuaded him to publish his autobiography, 'An Authentic Narrative...' At first it was published anonymously, but soon everyone knew who the author was. He became very popular through this work; making many new friends from across all walks of life. One of these was the very wealthy merchant, John Thornton. Thornton was a philanthropist and a strong evangelical and his son would become a friend of William Wilberforce and part of the Clapham Sect. Thornton visited Olney after reading the autobiography and gave Newton a very generous income of £200 per year. This enabled Newton to give money to the poor, something he always liked to do.
Soon afterwards Newton encouraged William Cowper to come to live near him at Olney. Cowper suffered from intervals of madness and had tried to commit suicide a few times, but in between he was a brilliant hymn writer and poet. Newton also wrote hymns and in 1779 published 'Olney Hymns' and out of 348 hymns, 282 were by Newton and the remainder by Cowper. One of the hymns in this book was 'Amazing Grace'. Strangely, this hymn was soon forgotten in England, but it was popular in America and in 1835 the music we know today was added.
Newton's methodist sympathies did not go down well with local clergymen, which was a common problem in those days. This was particularly true for a neighbouring vicar, Thomas Scott, who took offence to Newton visiting two of his dying parishioners whom he himself had not visited. They struck up a correspondence with Scott trying to stir up controversy, but Newton avoided being drawn, filling his letters with useful advice. Scott was so annoyed that he broke off correspondence, but in discouraging circumstances Scott visited the vicarage and his advice was so comforting that his opinion changed and he began going to Newton's lectures. This led to his conversion and through his writings he became a force in the Church.
Newton had several works published and he was a huge letter writer, like many in his day. He wrote thousands of letters that brought encouragement to many, and some were published. Newton's letters and autobiography made him famous, with streams of visitors coming to the vicarage.
Having been at Olney for around fourteen years things started to decline for Newton. He was much loved, but he probably did not exhibit enough discipline, so people started to take him for granted and get into some bad ways. Matters came to a head soon after a terrible fire in Olney in October 1777. Newton was lauded for the way he helped people and for the money he raised to help those affected. However, he and others thought it best to stop the annual celebrations on November 5th, which led to a wild and lawless mob march through the streets, breaking windows and threatening people. This action made him realise that it was probably time to move on.
In 1779 John Thornton offered Newton the parish of St Mary Woolnoth, which was close to the Mansion House in the City of London. He did not feel that comfortable moving to London after being so long in the countryside he loved so much, but the house he moved to was two miles away in the suburbs where they could see fields and animals. Newton was amazed that such a sinner could be placed in such a prestigious church where the Lord Mayor of London worshipped. All through his ministry his memories of what he had been were never far from him, something that enabled him to keep humble in the midst of the fame that followed him.
Newton continued to minister to the poor when he could. He had open house at his home in Charles Square and many took advantage of this. One day in December 1785 he had a request for a meeting from William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was in fact related to John Thornton and when he was a boy he spent quite a lot of time with Newton; listening to his amazing stories and something of the Gospel. Unfortunately, his mother banned him from visiting Newton because she was concerned he was becoming a methodist. Newton had noted how, by 1781, any sign of Wilberforce having a faith had disappeared.
At the time of his visit Wilberforce had just given his life to the Lord, and he was looking for advice from his old mentor as to whether he should give up being a Member of Parliament and become a clergyman. Newton recognised how he could be used inside Government and persuaded him to remain an MP.
Newton's journey to being an Abolitionist was a gradual one. It was not until the publication of his autobiography in 1764 that he had begun to doubt the morality of the Slave Trade. At Olney he read a lot and was aware of John Wesley's view that slavery was despicable, and by the time he arrived in London he had come to the position of being appalled by it. He would speak out about its horrors frequently, especially to Wilberforce whom he saw regularly. He spoke powerfully into Wilberforce's life; helping him to become 'born again' and encouraging him to do something about the Slave Trade. In 1788 the Prime Minister, William Pitt, put the matter of the Slave Trade before a committee and one of the witnesses was John Newton. He could not believe that someone like him could be summoned to St James' Palace. What amazing Grace!
Polly was a constant source of joy to him. Throughout their marriage they were deeply in love; hating any separation and writing to each other daily. If Newton did not receive an expected letter from her on time he would be full of concern for her until the expected letter arrived. What an incredible blessing their marriage was. However, Polly got cancer and after an illness of 15 months, she died in 1790. Newton had to soldier on without his beloved Polly for 17 more years before he was able to join her.
In his remaining years, he helped found the London Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society and later the British and Foreign Bible Society. He was a mentor to many and notably helped Hannah Moore, the great educationalist into the Kingdom of God. Sadly, he became almost deaf and almost blind, but he still continued to preach. Even though he made mistakes and was forgetful, people still gained benefit from his sermons. He stopped preaching in October 1806 and in March 1807 his incredibly merciful God allowed him to witness the end of the British Slave Trade.
John Newton died in December 1807 and his last words were, 'My memory is nearly gone. but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour!'
What an extraordinary testimony he was to the incredible mercy of God. Seldom, could anyone stoop lower and then be raised up to a place where he could be a major influence for good in the land. So many times the Lord protected him from death so that His plans and purposes for his life could be fulfilled. Even today, over two hundred years later, we benefit from his remarkable life through his incredible hymn, Amazing Grace!
This biography was taken from ‘The life of Rev John Newton’, written by himself and then completed by Rev Richard Cecil. It can be found online https://ia902601.us.archive.org/24/items/lifeofrevjohnnew00newt_0/lifeofrevjohnnew00newt_0.pdf.
‘Newton the Liberator’ by John Pollock, published by Kingsway, was also helpful.