Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song
Steve Turner
Ecco, 288 pages, $23.95

John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace" and "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," was remarkably thickheaded. If Calvinists believe in the "perseverance of the saints," this future Calvinist devoted himself to demonstrating the persistence of the sinner. The first few chapters of Steve Turner's engaging Amazing Grace chronicle Newton's dogged commitment to self-destructive vice to the point that this reader could not help scrawling in the margin of page 37, "This man was thick!"

Like many a seafaring man of the 18th century, Newton repeatedly engaged in physically and spiritually destructive behaviors. He deserted the Royal Navy, then was flogged for desertion and demoted. He made up disrespectful songs about his ship's captain and was demoted again. He frequently drowned himself in drink. He prided himself in creative profanity and sharp attacks on Christian belief. Even though on several occasions he seemed to have been miraculously preserved when he should have lost his life, he persisted in the godless philosophy he learned from the Third Earl of Shaftesbury's Characteristicks (which book Alexander Pope said had "done more harm to Revealed Religion in England than all the works of Infidelity put together"). He hardened his heart against God's advances.

One definition of neurosis (variously attributed to figures ranging from Rudyard Kipling to Bill Clinton) is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Though his stupid persistence might qualify him for that label and worse, Newton was not just neurotic, he was spiritually sick. ...

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Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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