December 31 marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of John Newton’s death. But John Newton in evangelical tradition is by no means dead. He has lived on and is remembered today in some of the choicest hymns of Christian praise. What Christian, for instance, has not sung “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds” or “Glorious things of thee are spoken”? Or that simple and direct spiritual autobiography which was written long after a jeopardous career, “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”?

Through Many Snares

Quite remarkable, one observes, is the literary quality of these hymns, for Newton in his early days had been the son of a shipmaster, a sailor of little education. He had served his father on the Mediterranean during his youth and later had been impressed into the British navy as a midshipman. Pursuing the typical reckless and godless habits of life at sea, he made several attempts at escaping from his duties there, and for his perniciousness was flogged and later half-starved—an experience to which he appears to allude in the lines, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.”

He became for some years a commander in the African slave trade; but because he had employed his spare time to acquire some education, he chanced to read among other books a copy of Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. It was this that implanted the seed of his conversion. Newton gave his heart to God and straightway abandoned his sinful habits for a new life. Returning to England, the young convert completed his studies in ministerial preparation and in time took his ordination at Olney church in Buckingshire.

While at Olney, Newton befriended the mentally disturbed poet, William Cowper, and set ...

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