John Newton

John Henry Newton (July 24, 1725 – December 21, 1807) was an Englishman, Anglican clergyman and former slave-ship captain. He was the author of many hymns, including "Amazing Grace."

Early life

John Newton was born in Wapping, London, in 1725, on July 24, the son of John Newton, a shipmaster in the Mediterranean service, and Elizabeth Newton (née Seatclife), a Nonconformist Christian. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 6. [ [ The Cowper and Newton Museum ] ] Newton spent 2 years at boarding school, at the age of 11 he went to sea with his father and sailed with him on a total of six voyages until the elder Newton retired in 1742. Newton's father had planned for him to take up a position as a slave master at a sugar plantation in Jamaica but in 1743, he was pressed into naval service, and became a midshipman aboard HMS "Harwich". After attempting to desert, Newton was put in irons and court martialed. The captain was determined to make an example of Newton for the rest of the crew. Thus, in the presence of 350 members of the crew, the 18-year old midshipman was stripped to the waist, tied to the grating, and received a flogging of 96 lashes, and was reduced to the rank of a common seaman. [ [] ] Following that disgrace and humiliation, Newton initially contemplated suicide, [ [] ] but he recovered, both physically and mentally, and, at his own request, he was placed in service on a slave ship bound for West Africa which eventually took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He became the servant of a slave trader, who abused him. It was this period that Newton later remembered as the time he was "once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa." Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to search for him on his next voyage.

Religious Conversion

Sailing back to England in 1748 aboard the slave-ship "Greyhound" on the Atlantic triangle trade route, the ship encountered a severe storm and almost sank. Newton awoke in the middle of the night and prayed to God as the ship filled with water. It was this experience which he later marked as the beginnings of his conversion to evangelical Christianity. [ [ The Rev. John Newton ] ] As the ship sailed home, Newton began to read the Bible and other religious literature. By the time he reached Britain, he had accepted the doctrines of Christianity. The date was March 10, 1748, an anniversary he marked for the rest of his life. From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking, although he continued to work in the slave trade. He later said that his true conversion did not happen until some time later: "I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards." [John Newton. "Out of the Depths". Ed. Dennis Hillman. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003. 84. ] Newton returned to Liverpool, England and, partly due to the influence of Joseph Manestay, a friend of his father’s, obtained a position as first mate aboard a slave trading vessel, the "Brownlow", bound for the West Indies via the coast of Guinea. During the first leg of this voyage, while in west Africa (1748-49), Newton acknowledged the inadequacy of his spiritual life. While he was sick with a fever, he professed his full belief in Christ. He later said that this experience was his true conversion and the turning point in his spiritual life. He claimed it was the first time he felt totally at peace with God.

Still, he did not renounce the slave trade until later in his life (when he wrote a tract decrying it in aid of abolitionist William Wilberforce). After his return to England in 1750, he made three further voyages as captain of the slave-trading ships "Duke of Argyle" (1750) and the "African" (1752-53 and 1753-54). He only gave up seafaring and his slave-trading activities in 1754, after a serious illness.

Anglican priest

In 1755 Newton became tide surveyor of the port of Liverpool, again through the influence of Manestay and, in his spare time, was able to study Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. He became well-known as an evangelical lay minister, and applied for the Anglican priesthood in 1757, although it was more than seven years before he was eventually accepted and ordained into the Church of England. Such had been his frustration during this period of rejection that he had sought also to apply to the Methodists, Independents and Presbyterians, as well as directly to the Bishops of Chester and Lincoln and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Eventually, in 1764, he was introduced by Thomas Haweis to Lord Dartmouth, who was influential in recommending Newton to the Bishop of Chester, and who had suggested him for the living of Olney, Buckinghamshire. On 29 April 1764 Newton received deacon’s orders, and finally became a priest on 17 June.

As curate of Olney, Newton was partly sponsored by the evangelical philanthropist John Thornton, who supplemented his stipend of £60 a year with £200 a year "for hospitality and to help the poor". He soon became well-known for his pastoral care, as much as for his beliefs, and his friendship with dissenters and evangelical clergy caused him to be respected by Anglicans and non-conformists alike. He was to spend sixteen years at Olney, during which time so popular was his preaching that the church had a gallery added to accommodate the large numbers who flocked to hear him.

Some five years later, in 1772, Thomas Scott, later to become a biblical commentator and co-founder of the Church Missionary Society, took up the curacy of the neighbouring parishes of Stoke Goldington and Weston Underwood. Newton was instrumental in converting Scott from a cynical 'career priest' to a true believer, a conversion Scott related in his spiritual autobiography "The Force Of Truth" (1779).

In 1779 Newton was invited by the wealthy Christian merchant John Thornton to become Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, where he officiated until his death. The church had been built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1727 in the fashionable Baroque style. Newton then became one of only two evangelical preachers in the capital, and he soon found himself gaining in popularity amongst the growing evangelical party. He was a strong supporter of evangelicalism in the Church of England, and was a friend of the dissenting clergy as well as of the ministry of his own church.

Many young churchmen and others enquiring about their faith visited him and sought his advice, including such well-known social figures as the writer and philanthropist Hannah More and the young M.P., William Wilberforce, who had recently undergone a crisis of conscience and religious conversion experience as he was contemplating leaving politics.


John Newton has been called hypocritical by some modern writers for continuing to participate in the slave trade while holding strong Christian convictions. However, during his early years as a slave trader he did not consider himself to be a true Christian: 'I was greatly deficient in many respects..."I cannot consider myself to have been a believer" in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time later." [John Newton. "Out of the Depths." Ed. Dennis Hillman. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003. 84.]

It is true, after what he felt was his "true conversion" to Christianity, he continued working the slave routes for a few years, but he eventually came to repent. He later joined William Wilberforce in the campaign for abolition. In 1787 he wrote a tract supporting the campaign, "Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade".

Among his greatest contributions to history was encouraging William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament for Hull, to stay in Parliament and "serve God where he was", rather than enter the ministry. Wilberforce heeded the ex-slaveship captain's advice, and spent the next twenty years successfully working for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.

Writer and hymnist

In 1767 William Cowper, the poet, moved to Olney. He worshipped in the church, and collaborated with Newton on producing a volume of hymns, which was eventually published as "Olney Hymns" in 1779. This work was to have a great influence on English hymnology. The volume included Newton's well-known hymns "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken", "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!", "Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare", "Approach, My Soul, the Mercy-seat", and "Faith's Review and Expectation" which became to be known by its opening phrase, "Amazing Grace".

Many of Newton's (as well as Cowper's) hymns are preserved in the Sacred Harp.


*The town of Newton, Sierra Leone is named after John Newton. To this day there is a philanthropic link between John Newton's church of Olney and Newton, Sierra Leone.

*Olney has a museum to commemorate its most famous son.

*Newton was recognized for his hymns of longstanding influence by the Gospel Music Association in 1982 when he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Portrayals in literature, movies and other media

* Newton is portrayed by actor John Castle in the 1975 British television miniseries "The Fight Against Slavery."

*Caryl Phillips's novel "Crossing the River" (1993) includes nearly verbatim excerpts from Newton's books.

*Newton is played by the actor Albert Finney in the 2006 film "Amazing Grace", which highlights Newton's influence on William Wilberforce. Directed by Michael Apted, this film portrays Newton as a penitent who is haunted by the ghosts of 20,000 slaves.

*Newton is also played by the actor Nick Moran in another 2006 film "The Amazing Grace". The creation of Nigerian director/writer/producer Jeta Amata, the film provides a refreshing and creative African perspective on the familiar "Amazing Grace" theme. Nigerian actors Joke Silva, Mbong Odungide, and Fred Amata (brother of the director) portray Africans who are captured and wrested away from their homeland by slave traders.

* [ "African Snow"] , a play by Murray Watts, takes place in Newton's mind. It was first produced at the York Theatre Royal as a co-production with Riding Lights Theatre Company in April 2007 before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End and a National Tour. Newton was played by Roger Alborough and Olaudah Equiano by Israel Oyelumade.

* The aging Newton is played by the actor Albert Finney in the 2007 movie "Amazing Grace," which highlights Newton's influence on William Wilberforce



* Aitken, Jonathan, "John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace" (Crossway Books, 2007).
* Bennett, H.L. "John Newton" in Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 1894)
* Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. "John Newton" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2004)
* Hochschild, Adam. "Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery" (Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2005)
* Turner, Steve, "Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song" (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2002)
* Rediker, Marcus, "The Slave Ship: A Human History" (Viking)

External links

* [,%20John%A0.html Famous Quotes by John Newton]
* [ Amazing Grace: The Song, Author and their Connection to County Donegal in Ireland]
* [ Amazing Grace:The True Story]
* [ Amazing Grace Documentary]
* [ Amazing Grace: Some Early Tunes]
* [ "But Now I See"] An Autobiography and Narrative, Compiled Chiefly From His Diary And Other Unpublished Documents. By Josiah Bull, M.A., First Published In 1868, (Reprinted by) [ Banner of Truth Trust] , 1998 Public Domain
* [ The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney]
* [ Amazing Grace: John Newton information.]
* [ Olney-Newton, Sierra Leone Project]
* [;idno=21874801;view=image;seq=1 Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade] By John Newton. Published in 1788. Cornell University Library Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection. {Reprinted by} [ Cornell University Library Digital Collections]
*Jonathan Aitken biography "From Disgrace to Amazing Grace" []

* [ The True Story Of Amazing Grace]

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