I’d like to introduce you to John. I’ve never met John personally, though I have benefitted from his influence. Perhaps his story will influence you as well. John’s life is a great example of one who embraced the New Life in Christ. This New Life was not something that was not just born overnight, but, rather, involved a complicated journey. This journey that spanned several decades brought him to the place of being able to touch many people through the gift of music.
Although he had heard some stories from the Bible due to the faithfulness of his mother, by the time he was a teenager John had long given up any Christian convictions. A lot of this had to do with the hardness of his father who was away during much of John’s childhood. To add to his experience, John was only 9 years old when his mother died. Because his father was absent and his mother was dead, John was sent away to school until he was old enough to join his father in the business. When his father retired, John was left alone at 19 years of age. He found a mentor and learned the ways of the business.
Like many boys of his youth, John soon fell in love. As if his story didn’t already have enough twists and turns, this is where John’s life took the most dramatic turn. One day, while visiting his new love interest, Mary, John was kidnapped. He was kidnapped by a gang of sailors and forced to serve in the British Royal Navy on board the Harwick.
You see, the reason I’ve never met John personally is mostly due to the fact that he was born in 1725.
Bitter about life and toward Christianity because of his circumstances, John began his downward spiral into degradation. When he learned that the Harwick was preparing to embark on a five-year voyage around the world, he tried to desert. However, a few sailors spotted him, dragged him back to the ship, flogged him, and demoted him. He lost his status as an officer in training, and was forced to travel around the globe. Without hope in the world, John considered suicide. Nothing except an act of the Almighty God Himself could intervene in John’s life.
Not caring about much of anything except being able to escape life aboard the British ship, eventually John reached the coast of Sierra Leone where he became the servant of a slave trader. His job was to capture African men and women, transport them abroad, and force them into slavery. What was ironic was that aboard this slave ship, John was also treated as a slave by his bosses. Over the years he hopped from slave ship to slave ship, and was enveloped by the darkness around him. This was the undoubtedly the darkest period of his life.
At this point, John was only 23 years old. John was living the only life he knew how to live and his life was on the balance. Then, as if God was just waiting for the absolute right moment, He reached down His hand and grabbed John by the shirttails. On this particular night, John happened upon a copy of The Imitation of Christ, the message of which cut him straight to the heart. And that very night a severe storm slammed the ship. Everyone on board almost sank to the watery grave below.
Another time, also at sea, John became ill with a violent fever and asked for mercy from the God he had rejected years before but somehow knew was still there. And in midst of these storms, John came to the only possible conclusion that he was a sinner in need of forgiveness. John later said these events were the turning point of his life. He started going to church, and when he and Mary got married he promised her that he would live an upright life. He also promised her that he would secure a respectable lifestyle.
Old life, new life. With this new life in Christ, John was immediately transformed. Or was he?
You may know the rest of the story. This man came to be known as John Newton. Unfortunately, though, John’s story doesn’t just stop there. This New Life stuff was hard, especially when the Old Life is all one has ever known.
After all, the slave trade was an occupation that met the conditions of a secure and respectable life, wasn’t it?
At this point, John did not recognize the contradiction between his new faith and his vocation. He served as first mate on one slave ship, and then as captain on three more. Naturally, he often slipped into his old habits. Mornings were spent studying the Bible and praying because of new freedom in Christ, and evenings were spent cracking the whip on the backs of those he imprisoned. He admitted that he was a ruthless businessman and was cruel to the Africans he traded. Slave revolts on board ship were frequent, so John mounted guns and muskets on the desk aimed at the slaves’ quarters. Slaves were beaten and tortured to keep them quiet. And all this was after he had become a Christian.
Eventually John grew weary of the struggle. So, so weary. The only way out, he realized, was to depend on the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit to sustain him.
Eventually John Newton retired from the slave trade. Dependent on the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit, he decided he wanted to become ordained as a pastor, but the Church of England would not permit him because he did not have a university education. Nevertheless, John was invited to serve as a pastor when he was 39 years old, and actually proved to be an effective spiritual leader. During his years as a pastor, Newton’s warm personality and excellent preaching endeared him to many friends. He used his influence to unite the church. John Wesley marveled at Newton’s ability to transcend divisions and broker disputes.
Could this really be the same man as that which was the captain of slave ships?
John Newton came to deeply regret his involvement in the Slave Trade. In 1787, Newton wrote a tract, ‘Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade’, which graphically described the horrors of the Slave Trade and his personal role in it. He influenced many people, including William Wilberforce, who would spend the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery. Later Wilberforce challenged Newton to speak publicly against slavery, the very occupation to which Newton had given most of his life. Newton accepted the challenge, and became a major voice in the eventual abolition of slavery in England.
John Newton wrote the words to the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, which begins,
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.
Amazing Grace. The only possible answer to a life like John Newton. The only possible answer to a life like yours and mine.
As his life faded, John Newton is known to have said to a friend, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things – that I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” Because of his new life in Jesus Christ John Newton became a new man.
On his gravestone, the following words say it all: “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith that he had long laboured to destroy.”
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
What is it about John’s story that touches you the most?