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 and exposure to racial oppression 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 and started sailing with his father, a ship-captain, when he was only eleven years old. By age sixteen, John had already made several voyages at sea.
Two years later, John was captured by and forced to serve in the Royal Navy and was placed on a navy ship. Unwilling to go to the West Indies, he tried to desert and was captured and punished by whipping. He was let go of the navy and put into another ship that took him to the coast of Guinea, Africa, where the crew left him.
There, racial oppression continued as John became a destitute servant of a white slave master and his African mistress, who treated him worse than the slaves. He was later rescued by a captain, a friend of his father, and taken on board the Greyhound ship. On this trip, Newton came face to face with death when a storm broke the ship and almost sank it; the year was 1748, and he was 23.
Newton had strayed far away from the beliefs of his departed mother when God awoke him from his depraved state during the storm. 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. But it was this first encounter with God that slowly began to change his heart and mind. 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 as he gained 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 compassionate career and treated the slaves more humanely. After his encounter with Andrew Clunie, John returned home to his wife. After a short time of rest, John was ready to set sail again. 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 and served at Olney and London. That same year he published his autobiography. 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 the courage to stay the course.
Newton’s "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 this type of racial oppression 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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If one book provided the research for this entire article, please include in the reference: Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, 1788
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