It was in God’s providence that John Newton’s life intersected with the darkest chapter of the British Empire: the slave-trading enterprise that transported thousands of Africans into the New World colonies. His own participation in the “unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce” allowed Newton to describe in writing the brutality of that enterprise as he testified before a government committee.*
Newton was born in London in 1725. Before he was seven, he lost his Christian mother, a pious believer who taught him the Bible, the evangelical catechisms and children’s hymns. John started sailing with his father, a ship-captain, when he was only eleven years old. By age sixteen, John had already made several voyages to the Mediterranean with his father.
In his youth, John faced his own sinful nature by attempts at reforming his life through the practice of prayer and fasting, which would help him for a time but would ultimately fail him. He gave up on those efforts and became an impatient and undisciplined young man with no thought for God and others. It seems that the only good thing in John’s life during his youth was meeting Mary Catlett, the love of his life and future wife.
At age 18, John was press-ganged or forcefully recruited to serve in the Royal Navy. Through the influence of his father, John was given the rank of midshipman. But John continued to be of a rebellious spirit, and he became even more resolute in his contempt for God and religion. Planning to desert from the navy, he had his chance when he was sent on a mission to capture some deserting men, and instead, he escaped. However, he was soon captured, publicly stripped and whipped and demoted of his rank. John became filled with “bitter rage, and black despair,” desiring to take his own life and with no fear of God in his heart. He was let go of the navy and boarded a ship destined to the coast of Guinea, West Africa.
In Africa, John’s life took a turn for the worse as he offered his service to an Englishman who had made a career of buying African slaves to sell them to the slave traders. This man and his African mistress mistreated and oppressed John, who suffered from illness, hunger, deprivation and humiliation. He would eat at times from the food given to him secretly by the African slaves. His situation changed when his master allowed him to work for another businessman, who treated him as a human being. John had suffered an awful humiliation and was not thinking of going back home.
All the while, John’s father had other captains searching for him. One captain found John and convinced him to return home with him in his ship, the Greyhound. On this trip, on March 21, 1748, Newton came face to face with death when a storm broke the ship and almost sank it.
Newton had strayed far away from the beliefs of his departed mother when God awoke him from his depraved state during the storm. After many hours of trying to save the ship, John, in a shallow way, without much thought, said, “If this will not do the Lord have mercy upon us!” It was John’s first plea for God’s mercy in many years. Being aware of his conduct and unbelief and how he had turned others away from God, he did not think there could be mercy for him.
At about six in the evening, they had freed the ship of the water, and they had hope of surviving. John then saw that God had intervened, and he began to pray to God, “I could not utter the prayer of faith: I could not draw near to a reconciled God and call him Father: my prayer was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear.”
It took them four weeks to reach land, during which time Newton avidly read the gospels in search of assurance that the Bible was God's truth, and there he became convinced of God's truth and the reality that Jesus is the Savior. During the following years, John read the Bible and sought God, but his understanding of it was, as he described it, confused.
Six years after turning to God, John met Andrew Clunie, a ship captain who was a mature believer with much Bible knowledge. The two met every day for a month, Andrew imparting his knowledge on John, who was delighted to receive such instruction. It was a profitable time for John, gaining assurance of his salvation and having a developed foundation for his faith in God.
Newton’s view on the slave trade changed slowly. After his first turn to God, John continued his career at sea and came to command ships that transported enslaved persons from Africa. At that time, he did not question it but prayed to God for a more humane career and treated the slaves more humanely. After his encounter with Andrew Clunie in 1754, John returned home to his wife. After a short time of rest, John was ready to return to the sea. But upon suffering an epileptic seizure, he stayed home to never return to the sea.
John Newton became a minister in the Anglican Church in 1764. His first pastorate was at Olney, a small, poor and rural parish. Here John flourished as a pastor, preacher, writer and hymn composer. At Olney, John wrote close to 300 hymns. One of those hymns was titled "Faith's Review and Expectation," now known as "Amazing Grace." Here he also published the story of his life, the Authentic Narrative.
His second place of service was in London, where he served until his death. His active years of ministry and writing gave Newton a platform to speak for God and against the slave trade and brought him into contact and friendship with people of political and social influence.
One of these was William Wilberforce, the member of Parliament who was most instrumental in bringing about the abolition of the slave trade. In 1785, When Wilberforce first sought God and his grace for his life, Newton became influential in Wilberforce’s life and his dedication to the cause against slavery. At one point, in 1796, when Wilberforce was ready to give up on his mission in Parliament, it was Newton’s letter that gave him back the courage to stay the course.
Newton’s public testimony, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), joined other written accounts by other writers who were instrumental in abolishing this trade. He described the effects of the slave trade on those who carried out the practice and those taken as slaves. Newton wrote a vivid account of the brutalities of the slave trade, and he called it a stain in the national character and saw it as a moral evil that was totally against God and his law. He wrote:
I am not qualified, and if I were, I should think it rather unsuitable to my present character, as a Minister of the Gospel, to consider the African Slave Trade, merely, in a political light. This disquisition more properly belongs to persons in civil life. Only thus far my character as a Minister will allow, and perhaps require me, to observe, that the best Human Policy, is that which is connected with a reverential regard to Almighty God, the Supreme Governor of the Earth. Every plan, which aims at the welfare of a nation, in defiance of his authority and laws, however apparently wise, will prove to be essentially defective, and, if persisted in, ruinous. The Righteous Lord loveth Righteousness, and He has engaged to plead the cause, and vindicate the wrongs of the oppressed. It is Righteousness that exalteth a nation; and Wickedness is the present reproach, and will, sooner or later, unless repentance intervene, prove the ruin of any people.
The English Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act on February 23 of 1807, to abolish this horrible enterprise in the British Empire. John Newton died on December 21, 1807.
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*Retrieved from: Newton, J. (2017). Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. Hansebooks.
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