By Barb Mazarakos
There is a common piece of advice given to writers when they start out to “write what you know”. These words are often the purest, coming from a place close to the heart where feelings and thoughts mostly unspoken find their way into the world. Such is the tale of one of our most beloved hymns, Amazing Grace.
It is ironic that the man responsible for these beautiful words was once known as “The Great Blasphemer.” For the first seven years of his life, John Newton grew up under the watchful eye of his Puritan mother, being taught the Word of God. When she died when he was 7 he was left to be raised by his father, who was a stern man of the sea. At 11 years old John went to sea with his dad and quickly adapted to some of the less desirable traits of sailors, including cussing, drinking, and overall debauchery.
Newton became impressed in the British Navy but by his bad behavior (and an attempt at desertion), he was demoted to the rank of common seaman. He ended up serving on a slave ship but didn’t get along with the crew, who ended up leaving him in West Africa with a slave trader by the name of Amos Clowe. Clowe gave Newton to his wife, who mistreated him as she did all of the rest of her slaves. In 1748, after 3 years of captivity, Newton was rescued by a seaman who was hired by his father to find him. They began their trip back on the ship Greyhound, which spent over a week thrashing around in a storm on the open water. As the sailors struggled to manually control the ship, Newton had the first moment of his conversion. He cried out to God for help in the middle of the night and the ship was spared. Newton began to spend time studying the Bible and in prayer, just as his mother instilled in him in his earliest years.
He gave up on gambling, women, and drinking, but continued to run slave ships and be involved in slave trading until 1754 when he suffered a stroke. Again he cried out to God for help. The next year he took a position as a tax collector but began studying Greek, Hebrew and Syriac in preparation for serious religious study. He was married to his childhood sweetheart and adopted his two nieces and worked as a lay minister, even applying to be ordained. It took 7 years for him to be accepted and he was ordained as a priest on June 17, 1764 in Olney, Buckinghamshire.
While in Olney, Newton would write hymns to accompany his services. In 1772 he wrote “Faith’s Review and Expectation”, or what we now know as “Amazing Grace”. In 1788, 34 years after leaving the slave trading business, Newton published a pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade”, which gave details of the condition of slave ships and denounced his former business, even saying “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.”The pamphlet was so popular it was reprinted and sent to all of the members of Parliament. Later, under the direction of William Wilberforce, slavery was outlawed in Great Britain in 1807. John Newton lived to see this happen but then passed away in December of that year, amazed by grace and no longer lost.