1725 - 1807
Amazing grace, how
sweet the sound... So begins one of
the most beloved hymns of all times, a staple
in the hymnals of many denominations, New
Britain or 45 on the top in Sacred
Harp. The author of the words was John Newton,
the self-proclaimed wretch who once was lost
but then was found, saved by amazing grace.
Newton was born in London
July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a
merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean.
When John was eleven, he went to sea with
his father and made six voyages with him before
the elder Newton retired. In 1744 John was
impressed into service on a man-of-war, the
H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board
intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured
and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman
to common seaman.
Finally at his own request
he was exchanged into service on a slave ship,
which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone.
He then became the servant of a slave trader
and was brutally abused. Early in 1748 he
was rescued by a sea captain who had known
John's father. John Newton ultimately became
captain of his own ship, one which plied the
Although he had had some
early religious instruction from his mother,
who had died when he was a child, he had long
since given up any religious convictions.
However, on a homeward voyage, while he was
attempting to steer the ship through a violent
storm, he experienced what he was to refer
to later as his great deliverance.
He recorded in his journal that when all seemed
lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed,
Lord, have mercy upon us. Later
in his cabin he reflected on what he had said
and began to believe that God had addressed
him through the storm and that grace had begun
to work for him.
For the rest of his life
he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748
as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation
in which he subjected his will to a higher
power. Thro many dangers, toils
and snares, I have already come; tis
grace has brot me safe thus far, and
grace will lead me home. He continued
in the slave trade for a time after his conversion;
however, he saw to it that the slaves under
his care were treated humanely.
In 1750 he married Mary Catlett,
with whom he had been in love for many years.
By 1755, after a serious illness, he had given
up seafaring forever. During his days as a
sailor he had begun to educate himself, teaching
himself Latin, among other subjects. From
1755 to 1760 Newton was surveyor of tides
at Liverpool, where he came to know George
Whitefield, deacon in the Church of England,
evangelistic preacher, and leader of the Calvinistic
Methodist Church. Newton became Whitefields
enthusiastic disciple. During this period
Newton also met and came to admire John Wesley,
founder of Methodism. Newtons self-education
continued, and he learned Greek and Hebrew.
He decided to become a minister
and applied to the Archbishop of York for
ordination. The Archbishop refused his request,
but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was
subsequently ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln
and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire.
Newtons church became so crowded during
services that it had to be enlarged. He preached
not only in Olney but in other parts of the
country. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled
at Olney, and he and Newton became friends.
Cowper helped Newton with
his religious services and on his tours to
other places. They held not only a regular
weekly church service but also began a series
of weekly prayer meetings, for which their
goal was to write a new hymn for each one.
They collaborated on several editions of Olney
Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity.
The first edition, published in 1779, contained
68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.
Among Newtons contributions
which are still loved and sung today are How
Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and Glorious
Things of Thee Are Spoken, as well as
Amazing Grace. Composed probably
between 1760 and 1770 in Olney, Amazing
Grace was possibly one of the hymns
written for a weekly service. Through the
years other writers have composed additional
verses to the hymn which came to be known
as Amazing Grace (it was not thus
entitled in Olney Hymns), and possibly verses
from other Newton hymns have been added. However,
these are the six stanzas that appeared, with
minor spelling variations, in both the first
edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the
one nearest the date of Newtons death.
It appeared under the heading Faiths
Review and Expectation, along with a reference
to First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That savd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relievd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believd!
Thro many dangers,
toils and snares,
I have already come;
Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promisd
good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and
heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who calld me here below,
Will be forever mine.
The origin of the melody is unknown. Most
hymnals attribute it to an early American
folk melody. The Bill Moyers special on Amazing
Grace speculated that it may have originated
as the tune of a song the slaves sang.
Newton was not only a prolific hymn writer
but also kept extensive journals and wrote
many letters. Historians accredit his journals
and letters for much of what is known today
about the eighteenth century slave trade.
In Cardiphonia, or the Utterance of the Heart,
a series of devotional letters, he aligned
himself with the Evangelical revival, reflecting
the sentiments of his friend John Wesley and
In 1780 Newton left Olney
to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, St.
Mary Woolchurch, in London. There he drew
large congregations and influenced many, among
them William Wilberforce, who would one day
become a leader in the campaign for the abolition
of slavery. Newton continued to preach until
the last year of life, although he was blind
by that time. He died in London December 21,
1807. Infidel and libertine turned minister
in the Church of England, he was secure in
his faith that amazing grace would lead him