Most of us are well acquainted with the story about John Newton, the man who wrote this song some two hundred forty- seven years ago, but now there is more information out there and it is just as awesome as the song. Amazing Grace, after all these years, still remains one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world. Estimates are that it has been recorded more than 6,600 times.
John Newton was born near the Thames River in London in 1725. His early life was not easy. John’s father was a shipping merchant, brought up in the Catholic religion but had sympathies for the Protestant movement that was gaining traction.
His mother, a fierce independent not affiliated with the Anglican Church, had intentions for her son to become a member of the clergy. However, she died of tuberculosis when he was six years old.
While his father was at sea, a rather cool, distant stepmother raised him for the few years until John went to sea alongside his father. At the young age of eleven, John joined his father as an apprentice on a ship. Headstrong and headed for trouble might be the correct description of him. If there was ever anyone who seemed to enjoy ‘pushing all the wrong buttons’, it was John Newton.
Due to his disobedience and tendencies to be a trouble-maker, he was conscripted into the Royal Navy where he continued on his wayward path, and it is said, among other transgressions, he took “every advantage of every opportunity to overstay his leave”.
John had fallen in love with Mary “Polly” Catlett and she was the reason for some of the times he was AWOL. After deserting over and over, he was traded, and it certainly wasn’t an upward move for the young man, as he was now a crew member on a slave ship.
Thus began his career in the slave trade and yet, he still seemed determined to make his life as difficult as possible. Newton openly mocked the captain of the ship by writing obscene poems and songs about him and soon the crew joined in.
It seemed he couldn’t get along very well with several crewmates and these disagreements finally resulted in him being almost starved to death, imprisoned on the ship while at sea and was even chained like the slaves his ship carried.
Continuing on his downward spiral, Newton was soon enslaved himself and forced to work on a plantation in the British colony of Sierra Leone.
This sad state of affairs soon seemed as if it was going to be his permanent home, but after his father had gotten a letter from him describing his conditions, he set about trying to find his son. Soon, crew members from another ship found him – and even then, Newton claimed the only reason he left the colony was Polly.
He was so profane even on his rescue ship, the Greyhound, that he truly took being profane to the next level. He was so bad that even on a ship full of ‘profane men’, his captain later said Newton was the worst he had ever seen, and that he even created new words of profanity.
In 1748, while the Greyhound was in the North Atlantic a violent storm blew upon the ship and a shipmate was swept overboard, one who was standing in the same spot Newton had been just minutes before.
The crew spent hours emptying water from the ship while in water so rough Newton and another crew member had tied themselves to the pump to keep from being washed overboard.
In fact, John had proposed the tying business to the captain and as he turned away, he remarked, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” He then pulled an eleven-hour shift on deck, steering, and pondered his own statement.
It was about two more weeks before the poor battered ship and the almost starving crew landed in Ireland. Newton certainly had ample time to think about his experience and that he had basically blurted out this statement about the Lord.
Newton later said he began to wonder if he was even worthy of God’s mercy and was he in any way, shape or form, worthy of being redeemed. Not only had he neglected his religion, he had made fun of it to others, he had opposed it, even saying that God was a myth.
He seriously began to wonder if God was working through him. Because of all that had transpired in Newton’s life, his conversion was certainly not instantaneous nor immediate.
However, he did contact Polly’s family and conveyed his intentions of marrying her. Obviously, they had some misgivings about this young man but they allowed him to begin writing her and John tried to mend his ways because of Polly.
Newton found a place on another slave ship bound for Africa and he later confessed that he and his crewmates participated in most of the same shenanigans he had participated in before. He later said profanity was the only activity he was able to avoid.
Next came a serious, severe illness and while suffering through it, he resolved once again to completely change his life – but he kept his same attitude toward slavery – even continued in the slave trade through several more voyages. This time he was a captain sailing up rivers in Africa and loading slaves offered for sale and returning with them to larger ports.
John Newton married his Polly in 1750 and like any newlywed, found it harder and harder to leave her. After three of those voyages in the slave trade as a ship’s captain, he was finally promised another job, this time as a ship’s captain also, but his cargo was not related to the slave trade. However, at the age of thirty, he suffered some type of physical collapse and never sailed again. Exactly what caused this collapse has been lost to time.
Newton worked as a customs agent in Liverpool in 1756 and began to teach himself Latin, Greek and theology. At last his life did not consist of going to sea. He and Polly became very involved in their church. His friends suggested he become a priest in the Church of England but Newton was turned down by the Archbishop of York in 1758 because he did not have a university degree.
However, some thought the more likely reasons were John’s sort of leaning toward evangelism and he had a tendency to socialize with those dastardly Methodist!! After a friend’s encouragement to write his story about his involvement in the slave trade and his ultimate conversion, he was soon sponsored by the Earl of Dartmouth for ordination. John Newton was finally made the curate of Olney, in Buckinghamshire, England in 1764.
Olney was a village of about 2,500 souls, famous for its exporting of hand made lace. Most of the people were illiterate and poor. Newton was not ashamed of sharing his previous life experiences from the pulpit. His philosophy at this time was to “break a hard heart and heal a broken heart”.
Among his friends and church members at this time was a fellow named William Cowper. Cowper had not had it easy, either. Cowper was a failure at his law career, suffered bouts of insanity and had attempted suicide several times. But they made an awesome duo.
During this time, ‘learned’ vicars were expected to write verses. Newton tried his hand at writing hymns, which had become popular due to the likes of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts.
Newton and Cowper tried to present a poem or hymn at each prayer service. It is probable the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” were first used in late 1772 or early 1773. A collection of the Newton-Cowper poems written for church services was published anonymously in 1779, under the title of Olney Hymns. “Faith’s Review and Expectation” was the title of the poem and the first line read “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”
Newton’s sermon on that January day in 1773 centered on acknowledging that God is involved in our everyday lives and we are to be grateful for his guidance and steadfastness.
When you think about it, it is truly an ‘amazing’ thing that this, or any hymn for that matter, has remained popular and recognizable by the masses after lo, almost 250 years.