John Newton (1725-1807)

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Hymns #17, 54, 160, 181, 303, Appendix #10.
John Newton was born in London on July 24, 1725. His father was in charge of a vessel that plied the waters of the Mediterranean in trade. When but four years old his mother had already stored his mind with much of value. She had him learn portions of Scripture and hymns. He wrote: “My mother observed my early progress with peculiar pleasure, and intended from the first to bring me up with a view to the ministry.” When but seven his mother died and his father and step-mother left him to mingle with bad company. But though his faithful mother was dead and in the grave, her prayers followed him in all his wanderings.
While young he gave himself up to following of the sea. He was impressed into the Royal Navy, but deserted at Plymouth, Brought back he was lashed with the whip publicly, kept in irons and degraded in rank. Brought down thus he was ridiculed and insulted by the other men. He eventually got to the African coast where he became the slave of a slave trader, who with his wife treated him with savage cruelty. He suffered thus for about fifteen months before he was rescued and taken aboard a ship sent by his father. He had become infidel in his thoughts and set aside the early good teachings of his mother. But on the voyage he read “Thomas a Kempis” by Stanhope, when the thought flashed across his mind, “What if these things should be true?” Then a terrible storm came up and a friend who stood watch for him for a moment was swept overboard. The vessel shook and seemed doomed to be broken in pieces, and it was then that the Lord struck his conscience as to his sins. His crimes, infidel scoffings, and sudden escapes from death passed through his mind. It was then that he saw Christ as One Who had died for his sins. I shall give now his own words at that time:
“I now began to think of the Jesus Whom I had so often offended. I recollected the particulars of His life and death; a death for sins not His own, but for those who in their distress should put their trust in Him.... I was struck with several passages, particularly the prodigal—a case that had never been so nearly exemplified as by myself—then the goodness of the Father in receiving, nay, in running to meet such a son, and this intended only to illustrate the Lord’s goodness to returning sinners, this gained upon me.”
In later years he wrote:
“I hear the tempest’s awful sound,
I feel the vessel’s quick rebound;
And fear might now my bosom fill,
But Jesus tells me, ‘Peace! Be still!’
Hark! He has listened while I prayed.
Slowly the tempest’s rage is stayed;
The yielding waves obey His will, -
Jesus hath bid them, ‘Peace! Be still!’”
About the year 1742 he fell in love with a lady named Miss Mary Catlett. It was thoughts of her while enslaved in Africa that kept alive his hope and desire to get back to England. They were married February 1, 1750. After his marriage he made several sea voyages as Captain of a ship, to Africa and West Indian ports. But the Lord had a greater work for him and allowed an illness by reason of which he was declared by doctors to be unfit for going to sea again. He became a minister in the Church of England, and at Olney he worked with William Cowper to produce the “Olney Hymns.” He was also a great help to strengthen Cowper who was subject at times to fits of depression.
The Lord took him home in peace on December 31, 1807, and on his grave we have the epitaph written by himself:
John Newton, Clerk
Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long labored to destroy.
Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks.
And years in this church.