Amazing Grace: The Transformative Journey of John Newton

“Amazing Grace” is one of the most popular and beloved hymns in the world. It has been translated into over 200 languages and is sung by millions of people every year. But what is the story behind this iconic hymn?

In a world where hope can seem elusive and redemption feels far-fetched, the story of John Newton stands as a shining beacon of God’s unfathomable grace. His life was a testament to the transformative power of divine love and forgiveness, ultimately leading him to pen one of the most beloved hymns in history: “Amazing Grace.”

The Broken Beginnings
John Newton’s early life was marred by heartache and trials. Born on July 24, 1725, in London, England, he was the son of a shipmaster. However, his mother’s untimely death and his father’s subsequent remarriage led to a strained relationship between them. He was a rebellious child and ran away from home at the age of 11. He eventually found his way to sea, where he worked as a sailor for several years.

The Turbulent Seas
In search of purpose and adventure, Newton joined the British Navy at the tender age of eleven. His experiences as a sailor on the HMS Harwich and later on the Greyhound were marked by perilous encounters and a life of debauchery. The darkness of the sea seemed to reflect the inner turmoil of his soul, desperately seeking solace and redemption. In his early years, his mother had fervently prayed that he would become a minister, instilling in him the teachings of Scripture and Isaac Watts’ Divine Songs for Children. In the midst of his life at sea, fragments of those childhood lessons resurfaced in his memory.

Divine Intervention
It was during a violent storm at sea that Newton’s life took an unexpected turn. That day, March 21, 1748, etched itself into Newton’s memory as the day when divine intervention rescued him from the depths: “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” Years later, in 1805, Newton, as an old man, noted in his diary his ongoing observance of that day with humility, prayer, and praise, though his health limited his ability to write. Only through God’s astounding grace could a coarse, profane sailor involved in the despicable slave trade be transformed into a child of God. Newton perpetually marveled at the work that God had wrought in his life.

Mary and the Miracle of Love
Newton embarked on a new path, despite initially continuing his sailing and slave trading endeavors. His life underwent a profound transformation. He embraced disciplined Bible study, prayer, and Christian literature, striving to set a Christian example for the sailors under his command. Following his escape from the clutches of the sea, Newton left the British Navy and embarked on a quest for stability and purpose. He met and fell in love with Mary, a devout Christian woman whose unwavering faith became a source of inspiration for Newton. It was through her gentle encouragement and prayers that Newton’s journey of transformation gained momentum.

Stained glass window at St Peter and Paul Church, Olney.

A Pastor’s Influence
Under the guidance of a compassionate pastor, John Newton embraced the teachings of Christ and embarked on a path of spiritual growth. The love and grace he experienced through the Christian community provided the foundation for his eventual calling as a minister. Newton’s newfound faith ignited a passion within him to share God’s transformative power with others. His mother’s prayers had been answered, and in 1764, at the age of thirty-nine, John Newton commenced a forty-three-year journey of preaching the Gospel of Christ.

The Power of Redemption
As Newton continued his journey, he encountered various trials and struggles. He faced memory loss, which caused him to forget his own name and experiences, but through it all, he clung to God’s grace and forgiveness. Newton’s resilience in the face of adversity and his deep understanding of God’s love shone through his hymns, including the timeless masterpiece, “Amazing Grace.”

Newton’s Later Years
Together with his beloved wife Mary, Newton moved to the quaint market town of Olney. Mornings were dedicated to deep Bible study, while afternoons were spent visiting his parishioners. Regular Sunday services, as well as gatherings for children and young people, filled their schedule.. Despite his struggles with health and memory loss, he remained a beacon of hope and inspiration, reminding others of the boundless grace that had transformed his own life. Newton’s legacy endured, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts of those who encountered his story and his hymn.

Three letters from John Newton, including a striking missive sent to William Wilberforce, congratulating him on the abolition of the slave trade, which affirmed what Newton “always professed to believe, that to prayer, faith, and patient perseverance, all things are possible.”

The Influence on Abolitionism
In 1779, Newton bid farewell to Olney and assumed the role of rector at St. Mary Woolnoth in London. His ministry extended to the impoverished, the merchant class, and the influential. One of his notable disciples was William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery and drew profound inspiration from Newton’s life and preaching. Newton’s work, “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade,” based on his personal experiences as a slave trader, significantly contributed to the cause of British abolition. Missionaries William Carey and Henry Martyn also found strength in Newton’s guidance.

The Legacy of Amazing Grace
Over time, “Amazing Grace” became a cherished anthem in churches and a source of solace for individuals facing trials and tribulations. Its simple yet powerful lyrics spoke to the depths of human brokenness and the limitless reach of God’s grace. The hymn resonated with people from all walks of life, transcending barriers of race, culture, and background.

A Modern Inspiration
The impact of John Newton’s life and his hymn “Amazing Grace” continues to resonate in the present day. In 2006, a biographical movie titled “Amazing Grace” was released, further highlighting Newton’s transformative journey and the enduring power of his hymn. The film captivated audiences, reigniting interest in Newton’s story and reminding us of the profound message of redemption and forgiveness that resonates across generations.

Newton’s earthly journey reached its conclusion at the age of eighty-two. Until his health began to fade in his final years, he continued to preach and actively minister. He never ceased to marvel at the grace of God, humbly declaring to his friends, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”

Thus, the tale of John Newton’s life stands as a testament to the transformative power of divine grace. From a lost and wretched existence, he emerged as a vessel of God’s love and mercy, leaving an indelible impact on the world through his words, his hymns, and his unwavering faith.

Modern interpretations

Those who have read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic African American novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, may remember that Tom sings three verses of “Amazing Grace,” including one verse not written by Newton, which is now traditionally sung as the final verse:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.

“Amazing Grace” is a hymn that’s recognizable to almost every American, regardless of religious background.

One of the song’s most famous versions is by Judy Collins, who remembers attending an encounter group (to help people share their true feelings) in 1969 that grew heated. Her record producer, who was also there, asked her to sing something.

“My grandmother was a churchgoing Methodist, and she had taught me ‘Amazing Grace’ when I was a little girl,” Collins said. “It was one of the few songs that I knew that I figured everybody would know something of, and they all sang. And it did settle everybody down.” She recorded the song the next day, on her producer’s suggestion, and it became a hit. Her version even became famous on British radio, inspiring a bagpipe arrangement by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

Since then, the bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” has come back stateside — as a beloved part of memorials for public servants like police, firefighters and the military.

In 1972, ‘Amazing grace’ topped the UK charts with The Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.

Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton and the Surprising Story Behind his Song
by Bruce Hindmarsh and Craig Borlase

Co-written with Craig Borlase, this book tells the dramatic story of John Newton for a new generation. Newton was the author of “Amazing Grace,” and 2023 is the 250th anniversary of the song If anyone had ever been through many, dangers, toils, and snares, it was Newton, and his life is a parable of the grace we all need today, more than ever. The book is based on years of research on the life and writings of Newton. Yet we have written the book for a general audience, and it is presented with the pacing and story-telling of a novel.

Since the first public singing of “Amazing Grace” almost 250 years ago, every generation has been profoundly moved by the song, and now readers can connect with John Newton’s story like never before. In these days of extreme polarization when beliefs about race, church, and politics have all become deeply divisive in society, we need grace more than ever. We need stories like this one that talk honestly about the human condition but even more about the relentless love of God and his forgiveness of sins.

John Newton | Full Documentary

This documentary explores Newton’s life from his turbulent youth to his involvement in the 18th century African slave trade, his dramatic conversion aboard a sinking ship and on through his remarkable ministry as an evangelistic preacher, hymn writer and abolitionist.

The movie interviews with Newton scholars Brian H. Edwards, Jonathan Aitken and Tony Baker, thoroughly explores Newton’s life from his turbulent youth to his involvement in the 18th century African slave trade, his dramatic conversion aboard a sinking ship and on through his remarkable ministry as an evangelistic preacher, hymn writer and abolitionist. This fast-paced and insightful documentary serves as an excellent teaching tool and will inspire viewers to take hold of God’s amazing grace.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *