“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” It is probably the most famous hymn in history: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Newton was nurtured by a Christian mother who taught him the Bible at an early age, but he was raised in his father’s image after she died of tuberculosis when Newton was 7. At age 11, Newton went on his first of six sea-voyages with the merchant navy captain.
Newton lost his first job, in a merchant’s office, because of “unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint”—a pattern that would persist for years. He spent his later teen years at sea before he was press-ganged aboard the H.M.S. Harwich in 1744. Newton rebelled against the discipline of the Royal Navy and deserted. He was caught, put in irons, and flogged. He eventually convinced his superiors to discharge him to a slaver ship. Espousing freethinking principles, he remained arrogant and insubordinate, and he lived with moral abandon: “I sinned with a high hand,” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.”
He took up employment with a slave-trader named Clow, who owned a plantation of lemon trees on an island off of west Africa. But he was treated cruelly by Clow and the slaver’s African mistress; soon Newton’s clothes turned to rags, and Newton was forced to beg for food to allay his hunger.
The sluggish sailor was transferred to the service of the captain of the Greyhound, a Liverpool ship, in 1747, and on its homeward journey, the ship was overtaken by an enormous storm. Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.” He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.” He converted during the storm, though he admitted later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”
Newton then served as a mate and then as captain of a number of slave ships, hoping as a Christian to restrain the worst excesses of the slave trade, “promoting the life of God in the soul” of both his crew and his African cargo.
After leaving the sea for an office job in 1755, Newton held Bible studies in his Liverpool home. Influenced by both the Wesleys and George Whitefield, he adopted mild Calvinist views and became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and his role in it. He quit, was ordained into the Anglican ministry, and in 1764 took a parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire.
Three years after Newton arrived, poet William Cowper moved to Olney. Cowper, a skilled poet who experienced bouts of depression, became a lay helper in the small congregation.
In 1769, Newton began a Thursday evening prayer service. For almost every week’s service, he wrote a hymn to be sung to a familiar tune. Newton challenged Cowper also to write hymns for these meetings, which he did until falling seriously ill in 1773. Newton later combined 280 of his own hymns with 68 of Cowper’s in what was to become the popular Olney Hymns. Among the well-known hymns in it are “Amazing Grace,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
In 1787 Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade to help William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the practice—”a business at which my heart now shudders,” he wrote. Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him, and in his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, “I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”