January 1, 2017
The ship had been thrashing around in a violent storm for over a week. The waves ripped part of the side of the ship away and water flooded the vessel. The crew spent days trying to empty the boat of the water it was so quickly taking on. John tied himself to the helm, attempting to steer the craft through the endless storm. He was there for eleven horrifying hours. At the peak of desperation, John cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us.” As if by a miracle, the ship’s cargo shifted, blocking the hole in its side. No more water flooded on board.
When the ordeal finally ended with the crew and ship still intact, John returned to his cabin to contemplate his life and what had just happened.
John was born July 24, 1725, in London, England. His mother dreamt of him becoming a preacher and began his religious education at a very young age. Unfortunately, she died when John was only 6 years old. Not only did John lose his mother, he lost his faith as well.
By age 11, John apprenticed to his father, a respected ship captain. Before long, he learned the ways of not only the sea, but of the shipman. His language and demeanor were more than even the roughest sailors could take. The British impressed John into their Royal Navy at age 19, assigning him to an armed ship. Being extremely disobedient, he soon managed a transfer to a slave trade ship where he and the crew were anything but friends. Tired of John, they left him with a slave trader in Sierra Leone. The trader gave John to his wife, who in turn made him a slave and treated him as such. Eventually, John’s father worked out his rescue.
It was during John’s trip home that the ship got caught in the horrible storm.
The day John called to the Lord, March 21, 1748, became the defining moment of his life. He later wrote, "On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters." On the anniversary of the event in 1805, he logged in his diary, "Not well able to write; but I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer, and praise."
This incident did not convert John immediately, but it did begin to work on his heart. He curved what he could of his behavior to properly court and marry his true love, Mary Catlett. However, he became captain of his own ship involved in the slave trade. (see The Color-Blindness Of Slavery) While he had yet to understand all the evils of this practice, John did begin insisting the slaves be treated humanely. John also started down a path of self-education, teaching himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew and theology.
In 1755, John fell gravely ill. Following his recovery, he left his captain’s position. Instead, he took a position in Liverpool as a tide surveyor. While there, John learned of famed evangelist George Whitfield (see The Forgotten Founding Father), who inspired him tremendously. Whitfield’s good friend, John Wesley, co-founder of Methodism, urged John to become a minister. He was ordained into the Anglican church in 1764.
John accepted a ministerial position in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. In addition to preaching on Sundays, John prepared weekly prayer meetings as well. For these meetings, he wrote hymns to accompany his message. A local townsman and poet, William Cowper, helped John with his hymns.
For New Year’s Day, 1773, John prepared a message for the text 1 Chronicles 17:16-17. It is the beginning of a prayer from King David after Nathan tells him God plans for the savior to come from his line. The passage reads:
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.” (NIV)
John related to the humility, thankfulness and grace David expressed. So when he sat down to write his hymn, he pulled from his own experiences as inspiration. The result is the famous and beloved spiritual hymn, “Amazing Grace”.
John Newton was able to write such a moving song about God’s grace because it is his story. He was lost, but was found. He was blind, but now he sees. Liberty, all the experiences we have in our lives, both good and bad, are used for God’s glory. Even if at times it doesn’t really seem like it.
Over time, Newton realized the evils of slavery. In 1788, he published a pamphlet entitled, Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade. In it he discloses the ugliness and horrors of the slave trade. He also apologized for his part in the practice, writing, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
The tract gained widespread popularity. To keep up with demand, it was reprinted several times. Considered so relevant and important, every member of Parliament received their own copy. Newton’s work so greatly affected William Wilberforce that under his leadership, Parliament outlawed slavery in 1807. Newton, slave trader turned abolitionist, witnessed the end of slavery before being called home on December 21, 1807.
Great Britain was not the only country impacted by Newton’s work. Whitefield and the Black Robed Regiment ushered in the (First) Great Awakening. (see Who Among You Is With Me?) Now, Whitefield’s admirer helped contribute to the Second Great Awaking. While Britain loved much of Newton’s work, they found “Amazing Grace” too simple. However, ministers in America realized the importance of its message to those who were poor and uneducated, and needed to hear it the most. It all starts with grace.
During this time, the United States Congress passed its own Slave Trade Act in 1807. Effective in 1808, the importation of slaves into the states was prohibited.
There is no man too wretched that cannot be washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ. Newton was an atheist, a libertine, and a slave trader. Yet he was saved. Not because of anything he did, but entirely due to God's grace. And knowing that, Newton humbly and eagerly witnessed and preached the Good News of Jesus Christ, bringing many to faith.
In his later years, Newton told friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior."
Liberty, may 2017 bring you happiness, forgiveness, peace and most importantly, grace. How sweet the sound!
That’s my 2 cents.
GOD'S AMAZING GRACE