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Christian History Home > 2004 > Issue 81 > The Amazingly Graced Life of John Newton

The Amazingly Graced Life of John Newton
His was a tale of two lives, with God at the pivot point.
Chris Armstrong | posted 1/01/2004 12:00AM

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The "old African blasphemer." This was how John Newton (1725-1807) often referred to himself in later life. Such a self-characterization may seem like false humility. After all, by 1800 no evangelical clergyman had gained more fame or exercised more spiritual influence than Newton. He was loved and trusted by thousands; he preached in one of the most prestigious parishes of London; young ministers competed to stay with him and learn under the master. But Newton knew well the darkness at the heart of every person.

A fair beginning

Newton was born in London, an only child, in 1725. His mother, a pious Dissenter, taught him to read Scripture and memorize Reformed catechisms and hymns. Together they attended an Independent (Congregational) church in London, at a time when barely 1 percent of that city's population went to churches associated with that Puritan-derived group.

At age 7, however, Newton's mother died, and he fell under the less religious and more distant care of his sea-captain father. From age 11 to 17 John accompanied his father on five sea voyages that proved a stern and thorough education in seamanship. In the long interims between these trips, he was allowed by his stepmother to run free, and he got himself into ample adolescent trouble.

Though he fell repeatedly into temptation, he always rose again, resolved to live the life his mother had shown him.

On each of these occasions, he turned for a time to such Christian disciplines as prayer, pious reading, and the keeping of spiritual diaries. In all of these activities, he later remembered, his chief aim was not to please God but to escape damnation.

The lure of fortune

In 1742, soon after John's father retired from the sea and took a shore job with the Royal Africa Company, he announced the good news that John would soon make his fortune. Captain Newton had arranged for his son to go to Jamaica with a Liverpool ship-owner who had interests in slaves and sugar, there to act as a slave overseer. From this humble beginning the rise to a planter's estate would not be far—in the fond father's estimation—and from there, a seat in Parliament.

His father's dreams for John hit a snag, however, when the impulsive 17-year-old sailor met Mary Catlett, the daughter of family friends, at the Catletts' substantial estate in Kent. John not only fell hopelessly in love with Mary, but decided on the spot to miss his ship to Jamaica in order to stay and woo her.

When John returned home, weeks after the Jamaica-bound ship had left, his father resolved that his son would learn discipline. So he sent him on a months-long voyage as a common sailor, without his own paternal protection from the harshness of the seaman's life.

In the company of the rough crew, Newton soon lost the last of his former religious resolve. He took up smoking and swearing, and indulged his lusts at the journey's destination—Venice.

The God he had learned to worship at his mother's knee seemed a distant being with no claim on his life.

His "precious"

On the way back from Venice, Newton dreamed that he was pacing on deck when a stranger gave him a valuable ring, cautioning him to guard it well, for it was the key to all happiness. Newton slipped on the ring but soon faced another stranger, who ridiculed his faith in the trinket.

As he listened to this second man's persuasive words, the young sailor became embarrassed and pulled off the ring and dropped it overboard. The instant he had done so, the tempter told him he had in fact cast away God's mercy, and must now be consigned to fire.

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