“Amazing Grace” John Newton and His Great Hymn - page 1

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From the Winter 2013 issue of Knowing & Doing:  


"Amazing Grace"
John Newton and His Great Hymn

by David B. Calhoun
Professor Emeritus of Church History Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri


s a parish priest serving at Olney, England, John Newton made a practice of writing hymns to accompany his sermons.1 The Scripture text for the New Year’s service on January 1, 1773, was 1 Chronicles 17:16–17, a prayer of King David’s in which he asks, “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?”2 As Newton reflected on these words, he thought of how God’s grace had found him in his sin and brought him to a place of honor as a minister of the gospel. Over the next few days, he wrote the hymn we call “Amazing Grace.” He gave it the title “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” In the first three verses, Newton reviews God’s grace in his life thus far; in the next three, he states his certainty that God’s grace will lead him on and at last to heaven.

Newton’s Life

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

  John Newton’s father was a seaman. His mother was a godly woman who taught him the Shorter Catechism and the hymns of Isaac Watts. She died when John was six years old, and the little boy resolved to honor his mother’s memory by growing up to be a preacher. On his eleventh birthday (1736), after two miserable years at a boarding school, John went to sea with his father. His unsettled behavior and lack of discipline created many problems for himself, his father, and his shipmates.
  During a time at home, he was “impressed” into the Royal Navy. Overstaying a leave, he was arrested as a deserter and publicly flogged. Later he was transferred to a merchant ship bound for Africa. In Sierra Leone Newton worked for a merchant whose African wife brutally mistreated him whenever she could. He had become, as he later described himself, “a servant of slaves in Africa.” He escaped his miserable life by joining the crew of a slave ship. He now felt that he could do as he pleased. He was given to such profanity that the captain, who himself was “not at all circumspect in his expressions,” seriously reproved him.3 The “cargo” of the slave ship included African women and girls, naked and available to any of the crew. Newton never said that he used the slave girls, but he later described his moral condition in the words of 2 Peter 2:14—“Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin.” Newton later wrote, “The troubles and miseries . . . were my own. I brought them upon myself, by forsaking [God’s] good and pleasant paths and choosing the way of transgressors which I found very hard; they led to slavery, contempt, famine and despair.”4

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
the hour I first believed!

  Newton was tempted to throw himself into the sea to drown, but, he later wrote, “The secret hand of God restrained me.”5  The memory of his godly mother and also his love for Mary Catlett, whom he had met in 1743, when she was fourteen and he was seventeen, gave him reason to live.
  John Newton decided to stay on the Guinea coast and seek his fortune as an agent in the slave trade. His life seemed to be going well, he enjoyed his work, and pleasure was easy to come by. He was “governed by present appearances, and looked no further,” he wrote, but he came to see that “He who is eyes to the blind” was leading him in uncharted paths.6

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