JOHN NEWTON (1725 - 1807)

Books have been written about the famous writer of Amazing Grace, so our short survey of his life must only point out the extremes of his mountain peaks and valley depths. He was born of John Newton, Sr., a sea captain, and Elizabeth who died of tuberculosis when he was just two weeks shy of turning seven. Those years, however short, were filled with the example of a good Christian mother’s love and teachings. When nine, he was sent to live with his father’s second wife but spent the next two years in boarding school. At the age of eleven, he went to sea with his father for six voyages before his father retired when John was seventeen. Though his father had other plans for him, John signed on to a merchant ship.

While he was visiting friends, John was captured and “pressed” into the service by the Royal Navy at the age of eighteen. He became a midshipman aboard HMS Harwich and was flogged for trying to liberate himself. Being disgraced and even contemplating suicide at one point, he was transferred to the slave ship Pegasus. He continually proved to be more trouble than his worth and was left ashore in West Africa with a slave trader who gave him to his wife as a servant where he was abused along with the rest of the slaves. Early in 1748, now twenty-three, he was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked by Newton's father to search for him.

Sailing back to England aboard the Greyhound, he was sent to his knees in prayer during a storm that almost sank the ship. He later described that night as the beginnings of his conversion when he saw God as his only hope. Making England, he later signed on as first mate aboard the slave ship Brownlow. On his first leg out and sick with a high fever, Newton acknowledged his faith in Christ, saying later that it was this time spend in fear of death that turned his life around and for once felt at peace with God. After his return to England in 1750, he made three more voyages as captain of the slave trading ships Duke of Argyle and African. His crews did not like him. Once he fell overboard and instead of throwing him a rope, they speared him in the hip with a harpoon to bring him aboard. He would limp the rest of his life from the injury. At the age of twenty-nine, he had a severe stroke and gave up seafaring and other active slave trading activities, but continued to invest his savings in slaving operations. Also, in 1750 he married Mary Catlett, with whom he had been in love for many years. It was through her care and encouragement that John Newton began writing the chapters of his life that would endear him to all the Christians worldwide.

He became a tax collector for the port of Liverpool and studied Greek, Hebrew, and Saryic, became a lay minister and applied for priesthood in the Church of England at the age of thirty-two but was rejected. As the years went by, he applied to and was also rejected by Methodists, Independents and Presbyterians. It seemed that no one wanted much to do with a man with such a past. Eventually, in 1764, he was recommended to the Bishop of Chester, who suggested him for a position at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Olney, Buckinghamshire. In 1764 Newton received deacon's orders, and finally became a priest. He remained curate of Olney from 1764 until 1770, and later become the Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, where he officiated until his death. In 1792, he was presented with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. It was in 1788, thirty-four years after he retired from the slave trade that he wrote "Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade" and became influential in the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, the year of his death. John and Mary were both buried in the church yard of St. Mary Woolnoth but were reinterred in the south­east corner of the grave­yard at St. Pe­ter and St. Paul’s Church, Ol­ney.

But we are here because of John Newton’s lyrics sung every Sunday worldwide. The following are some of his better known hymns: Amazing Grace, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, Safely Through Another Week, and Though Troubles Assail Us. All were published in “Olney Hymns” (1779), a collection of his lyrics and those of his close friend and neighbor William Cowper.

"Faith’s Review and Expectation" (Amazing Grace), was written as a result of Newton’s study of I Chronicles 17:16-17.

    Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my
    family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O God, you
    have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You have looked on me as though I were the
    most exalted of men, O Lord God.

As Newton looked back on his life, he could ask the same question, “Who am I, O Lord God, … that you have brought me this far”, from a captain of a slave ship to the rector of a glorious and well known church?

John and Mary Newton's home (The Old Vicarage) in Olney, not open to the public. The upper gable on the right is his study.

John Newton's study where he wrote the lyrics for "Amazing Grace." And yes, we did sing the song in this room.

Allow me to digress, for a moment, from the history of Newton to the present day. Many of you have heard the story or watched the YouTube video by Wintley Phipps about how Newton would hear the slaves sing in the belly of his ship and would later use one of the tunes, a pentatonic tune no less (a five note scale tune, like one played on just the black keys of a piano), later for this set of lyrics. The truth is, Amazing Grace never was a popular song in England and one reason for that was because of the tune used for Newton's lyrics. The tune used for the song, and you will find it so in all song books published before 1900, was one named Corinth by Lowell Mason. It was not until E. O. Excell took an American tune of unknown origin (called by various names, New Britain, Harmony Grove, Symphony, Solon, and Redemption published first in “Virginia Harmony” in 1831) and married it to the text by Newton. Newton, being British, had been dead years before this American tune was ever published, so he probably never heard it. Yes, there is the possibility that it had been a slave song, but he never heard his lyrics sung to the American tune. Excell also added an additional stanza to Newton’s lyrics: “When we’ve been there ten-thousand years....“. Those words are from an anonymous hymn Jerusalem, My Happy Home, found in many nineteenth-century American collections. So not everything you see on the internet is true, no matter how many times the story gets told, who tells it, or how well it is told. The real story of this song is told in many good books of hymn history.

It is interesting to note that Amazing Grace is in neither “Hymns Ancient & Modern”, used by the Church of England, nor in “The Christian Hymnary”, used by churches of Christ throughout England in the past. Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken enjoys wide popularity among Newton’s countrymen and can be found in all their hymn books.

John and Mary Newton's grave at St. Pe­ter and St. Paul’s Church, Olney. For other pictures of the building and grounds at Olney and the Cowper - Newton Museum, go to:

A Hymn is Born - Bonner / Broadman Press 1959
Hymns & History - McCann / ACU Press 1997
Then Sings My Soul - Morgan / Thomas Nelson Publishers 2003
A Literary & Hymn Pilgrimage - Dr. Jerry Rushford 2011