John Henry Newton (1725 – 1807) was an English pastor and hymn writer. He was the son of an English sea captain. His mother was a deeply righteous woman who taught John from the Bible until she died when John was seven years old.
Not much is known about John’s childhood immediately following his mother’s death, but at the age of eleven John went to sea and spent the next 20 years as a sailor engaged in slave trading. His life was spent in the vilest and sordid forms of wickedness. At one time, he was the property of an African woman, who fed him only that which she threw him under her table. He was nearly killed several times during a terrible storm at sea, which almost sank his ship. His wicked life passed before him and with deep conviction over his sinful life he cried out to God for salvation.
He married Mary Catlett in 1750. They had no children. The next several years were spent in preparation for the ministry. He learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and studied the Scriptures intensively.
In 1764 he was appointed pastor of Olney, where he served for 16 years before moving to St. Mary Woolnoth in the city of London. In addition to his pastoral duties, Newton was an ardent writer. His works included Omicron, Narrative, Review of Ecclesiastical History, and Cardiphonia.
John Newton is perhaps best known as the author of the world-famous hymn, Amazing Grace, which was one of the Olney Hymns written in collaboration with
William Cowper. Newton is also remembered for his work in the anti-slavery movement in England, which occupied the latter part of his life.
The following are a series of selected quotations from several of Newton’s writings.
An excerpt from a letter entitled, Causes, Nature and Marks of a Decline in Grace (March 1765): “But still it is to be lamented, that an increase of knowledge and experience should be so generally be attended with a decline of fervor. If it was not for what has passed in my own heart, I should be ready to think it impossible. But this very circumstance gives me a still more emphatic conviction of my own vileness and depravity. The want of humiliation humbles me, and my very indifference rouses and awakens me to earnestness. There are, however, seasons of refreshment, ineffable glances of light and power upon the soul, which, as they are derived from clearer displays of divine grace, if not so tumultuous as first joys, are more penetrating, transforming, and animating. A glance of these when compared with our sluggish stupidity, when they are withheld, weans the heart from this wretched state of sin and temptation, and makes the thoughts of death and eternity desirable. Then this conflict shall cease;-I shall sin and wander no more, see Him as he is, and be like Him forever.
John Newton on the subject of salvation by grace alone: ““Salvation is wholly of grace, not only undeserved but undesired by us until God is pleased to awaken us to a sense of our need of it. And then we find everything prepared that our wants require or our wishes conceive; yea, that He has done exceedingly beyond what we could either ask or think. Salvation is wholly of the Lord and bears those signatures of infinite wisdom, power, and goodness which distinguish all His works from the puny imitations of men. It is every way worthy of Himself, a great, a free, a full, a sure salvation. It is great whether we consider the objects (miserable, hell-deserving sinners), the end (the restoration of such alienated creatures to His image and favor, to immortal life and happiness) or the means (the incarnation, humiliation, sufferings and death of His beloved Son). It is free, without exception of persons or cases, without any conditions or qualifications, but such as He, Himself, performs in them and bestows upon them.”
Newton’s Epitaph: While working as a tide surveyor he studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life preached the gospel in Olney and London. At 82, Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
Newton’s tombstone reads, “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 he had long labored to destroy.”
Soli deo Gloria!