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John Newton Converted by Amazing Grace

  • Dan Graves, MSL
  • Published Aug 18, 2023
John Newton Converted by Amazing Grace

To be at sea in a storm on an ocean liner can be thrilling. To face a storm in a sailing vessel that is not seaworthy can be terrifying. The boat in which John Newton sailed was in disrepair and its sails and rigging worn. A hard man who had often mocked God, John was considered impious even by his godless mates.

One night he was wakened by a violent wave crashing against the vessel. Water filled his cabin. Hurrying above, he found that timbers had been ripped away. All were in terrible danger as the ship plunged through a furious storm. Men pumped desperately. Clothes and bedding were stuffed into holes and boards nailed over them. John joined those who were manning the pumps.

Too exhausted to pump any longer, he was lashed to the wheel to try and steer the ship. The storm raged on and on. It was bitterly cold, the more so since the men had few clothes left. In this desperate moment John turned his eyes back over his life. Raised to the age of seven by a Christian mother, he had sought the Lord with fasts and prayers, but failing to find God he had become embittered. Despite this, the Lord preserved him through many dangers. Once he was even made a servant to slaves on the West coast of Africa.

In his heart he believed Christianity to be true. This brought him no consolation. "I concluded my sins were too great to be forgiven. I waited with fear and impatience to receive my doom." But soon he heard the glad news that the ship was freed of water. "I began to pray...to think of that Jesus that I had so often derided; I recollected his death: a death for sins not his own, but, as I remembered, for the sake of those who should put their trust in him." On this day, March 21, 1747 (new calendar) a day he ever after observed, John realized he needed a Savior to intercede for him with God.

He snatched a free moment to open the Bible and begin to read. Though the storm raged on for days, John spent every free moment in the Scripture and praying for guidance. Hungry, cold, exhausted, the men kept the ship afloat. Only one died of exhaustion but the Captain muttered that John ought to be thrown overboard like Jonah; his wickedness was the cause of all their misery, he claimed. Finally they reached Ireland.

By then John was convinced the Lord had reached down and delivered his soul. The story of the Prodigal Son seemed to exactly fit his case. He never turned back from that day of salvation, although, not realizing slavery was a sin, he worked six years as a slaver. He showed kindness to the slaves he transported, held worship services for his men and wrote hymns for them. Later he saw that slavery was wrong and became an abolitionist and a minister. Reflecting on his hard life, he wrote one of the world's most loved hymns: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me."

Bibliography:

1. Adapted from Christian History Institute's Glimpses #28.

2. Demaray, Donald E. Pulpit Giants: what made them great. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.

3. "Newton, John." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.

4. Routley, Erik. Hymns and the Faith. Greenwich, Connecticut: Seabury Press, 1956.

5. Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.

Last updated May 2007.

("John Newton Converted by Amazing Grace" published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)

Inspiring John Newton Quotes

The following quotes are from Thoughts on the African Slave Trade and collections of his letters.

On the African Slave Trade

".... in general, I know of no method of getting money, not even that of robbery, for it, upon the highway, which has a more direct tendency to efface the moral sense, to rob the heart of every gentle and humane disposition, and to harden it, like steel, against all impressions of sensibility."

"I have seen [enslaved people] sentenced to unmerciful whippings, continued till the poor creatures have not had power to groan under their misery, and hardly a sign of life has remained. I have seen them agonizing for hours, I believe, for days together, under the torture of the thumb-screws; a dreadful engine, which, if the screw be turned by an unrelenting hand, can give intolerable anguish. There have been instances in which cruelty has proceeded still further; but, as I hope they are few, and I can mention but one, from my own knowledge, I shall but mention it."

On Spiritual Struggles

"Afflictions evidence to ourselves, and manifest to others, the reality of grace. When we suffer as Christians, exercise some measure of that patience and submission, and receive some measure of these supports and supplies, which the Gospel requires and promises to believers—we are more confirmed that we have not taken up with mere notions; and others may be convinced that we do not follow cunningly devised fables."

". . . blessed be God, we are not under the law — but under grace! And even these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are overruled for good. By these experiences — the believer is weaned more from SELF, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely to rely on Him, who is our Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification and Redemption! The more vile we are in our own eyes — the more precious He will be to us! A deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts — is necessary to preclude all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our salvation where it is due!"

On Christian Living

"Love is the clearest and most persuasive indicator: and when our love to the Lord is in lively exercise, and the rule of his Word is in our eye — we seldom make great mistakes."

"The Bible is the fountain from whence every stream that deserves our notice is drawn; and, though we may occasionally pay some attention to the streams—we have personally an equal right with others to apply immediately to the fountain-head, and draw the water of life for ourselves! The purest streams are not wholly freed from the tinge of the soil through which they run; a mixture of human infirmity is inseparable from the best human composition. But in the fountain—the truth is unmixed!"

On Relating to Non-Christians

"If you account him [the person you are arguing with] as a BELIEVER, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: 'Deal gently with him for my sake' . . . But if you look upon him as an UNCONVERTED person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger! Alas! 'He knows not what he does!'" 

"We should pity a person whom we should see seeking some necessary thing day after day—in a place which we knew it was impossible to be found there. This is, however, the case with all people—until they come to Christ. Satisfaction is what they profess to aim at; and they turn over every stone (as we say), they try every expedient, to find lasting happiness—but in vain. Real satisfaction is only to be found in Jesus! When they come to Him, their wishes are fully answered and satisfied!"

Further Reading:

Amazing Grace Lyrics

When John Newton Discovered Amazing Grace (and Wrote the Hymn)

John Newton: God's Amazing Grace

10 Things You Didn’t Know about John Newton

The Love of John and Mary Newton

Photo Credit: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons.