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This is Why He Came

Stories of Salvation and Transformation from Around the World

I Once Was Blind, But Now I See: The Story of John Newton

by Faith Myers, DBU Student

Behind every song is a story, and knowing that story brings to life each and every lyric. It illustrates a meaning that may not have been realizable otherwise, and John Newton’s hymns are no different. His personal story is one that illustrates the transformative power of Christ, and he infuses his experiences into his hymn, Amazing Grace.

Newton grew up in the London suburb of Wapping, a community that thrived off of sea trade. His father was often absent, working as a merchant ship captain whose job demanded frequent travel. It was during one of his father’s trips that Newton’s mother passed away after battling tuberculosis. Newton, just seven years old, was left in the care of family friends. He quickly discarded any notions of God, despite his mother’s faith. Instead, he resolved to live by his own rules, disregarding morals as unnecessary and irrelevant.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” - Proverbs 14:12, NKJV

At a young age, and after his mother’s passing, Newton began working under a merchant navy captain. Without any care for authority, and coupled with his impatient and temperamental attitude, Newton quickly lost his first job. His misfortunes would continue in 1744 when he was taken by force into service for the Royal Navy on the H.M.S. Harwich. Challenging the discipline of his superiors, he attempted to desert the ship but was ultimately caught. After pleading with them, Newton was eventually relieved of his duty and placed on board another ship. This new ship, however, was not one that was full of merriment and liberation. His presence on the H.M.S. Harwich was replaced with a season of great pain and suffering onboard a slave ship.

Newton’s life on the slave ship was full of sickness, agony, and abuse by the slaver Clow and his African mistress. Onboard, he was reduced to wretchedness as hunger and malaria overcame him; alongside African slaves, he was hopeless and distraught. He often begged for food, distressed and broken both physically and mentally. It is this time during Newton’s life that inspired the lyrics “a wretch like me.”

“When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to you, ‘Your face, Lord, I will seek.’”- Psalm 27:8, NKJV

No season in life lasts forever, though. In 1747, Newton was pulled out of this harrowing situation, rescued by the captain of the Greyhound. Newton was grateful beyond measure, happy to no longer endure the merciless circumstances under Clow. He started reading the book Imitation of Christ, which had a profound influence on his life during the Greyhound’s journey back to England.

On their way to Liverpool in 1748, the crewmen on the Greyhound faced a violent storm. Overcome with fear, Newton realized how helpless he was, devoid of any power or will to save himself and his fellow crewmen. Recalling a line from the Imitation of Christ, as well as a verse from Proverbs, he had a sudden realization in the midst of the storm: he needed God in his life, especially His grace. Right then and there, Newton accepted Christ into his life, just as the ship was straining against the raging sea, the force of which pulled some of the crewmen overboard right before his eyes. This marks the hour that Newton first believed.  

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” - Ephesians 2:8-9, NKJV

The grace of God saves, and the kindness of God leads to repentance. Newton now understood that he needed Christ to save his soul, but it would not, as he claimed later on in life, mean that Newton was mature in his faith right off the bat. After returning to England safely from the storm, he married a family friend in 1750 and continued to serve on slave ships. He hoped to bring his faith on board, eventually assuming the role of a captain. A few years later, his career would dramatically change after suffering from a stroke.

No longer able to do his job at sea, Newton began work at the Customs Office in Liverpool. During this transitional period in his life, he delved deeper into his faith, exploring the Word of God more and more, each and every day.

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.” - Colossians 2: 6-7, NKJV

After a while, Newton felt drawn to a career in ministry and began to contest any approval of slavery. Later in his life, he would encourage the infamous William Wilberforce, who advocated for the abolition of the British slave trade. Ordained in 1764, Newton started to lead prayer services and Bible studies in his community. Once he befriended the poet William Cowper, he started creating the world-renowned hymn, Amazing Grace. The hymn is not only a picture of what Christ has done for mankind—freeing us from the chains of sin with His boundless grace—but it directly reflects how Christ brought Newton to faith: out of the slave ship, as both subjugated and subjugator, and into liberation that only God can truly bring. What better way to celebrate this Christmas season than to remember how our God has set us free.

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