to Listen to Song
The Story of John Newton
by Al Rogers
This article is reprinted from the July-August 1996 issue of Away
Here in Texas.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..." So begins one of the
most beloved hymns of all times, a staple in the hymnals of many
Britain or "45 on the top" in Sacred Harp. The author of the
words was John Newton, the self-proclaimed wretch who once was lost but
then was found, saved by amazing grace.
Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant
ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with
his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired. In
1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich.
Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and
publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman.
Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship,
which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a
slave trader and was brutally abused. Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea
captain who had known John's father. John Newton ultimately became captain of
his own ship, one which plied the slave trade.
Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had
died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions.
However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through
a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his "great
deliverance." He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the
ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, "Lord, have mercy upon us."
Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that
God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for
For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the
day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a
higher power. "Thro' many dangers, toils and snares, I have already
come; 'tis grace has bro't me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."
He continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he saw
to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely.
In 1750 he married Mary Catlett, with whom he had been in love for many
years. By 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring forever.
During his days as a sailor he had begun to educate himself, teaching himself
Latin, among other subjects. From 1755 to 1760 Newton was surveyor of tides at
Liverpool, where he came to know George Whitefield, deacon in the Church of
England, evangelistic preacher, and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church.
Newton became Whitefield's enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also
met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Newton's
self-education continued, and he learned Greek and Hebrew.
He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for
ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his
goal, and he was subsequently ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the
curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton's church became so crowded during
services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other
parts of the country. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he
and Newton became friends.
Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and on his tours to other
places. They held not only a regular weekly church service but also began a
series of weekly prayer meetings, for which their goal was to write a new hymn
for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which
achieved lasting popularity. The first edition, published in 1779, contained 68
pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.
Among Newton's contributions which are still loved and sung today are "How
Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds" and "Glorious Things of Thee
Are Spoken," as well as "Amazing Grace." Composed
probably between 1760 and 1770 in Olney, "Amazing Grace" was
possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service. Through the years other
writers have composed additional verses to the hymn which came to be known as "Amazing
Grace" (it was not thus entitled in Olney Hymns), and possibly
verses from other Newton hymns have been added. However, these are the six
stanzas that appeared, with minor spelling variations, in both the first edition
in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the one nearest the date of Newton's death. It
appeared under the heading Faith's Review and Expectation, along with a
reference to First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16 and 17.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.
The origin of the melody is unknown. Most hymnals attribute it to an early
American folk melody. The Bill Moyers special on "Amazing Grace"
speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.
Newton was not only a prolific hymn writer but also kept extensive journals
and wrote many letters. Historians accredit his journals and letters for much of
what is known today about the eighteenth century slave trade. In Cardiphonia,
or the Utterance of the Heart, a series of devotional letters, he aligned
himself with the Evangelical revival, reflecting the sentiments of his friend
John Wesley and Methodism.
In 1780 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, St. Mary
Woolchurch, in London. There he drew large congregations and influenced many,
among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a leader in the
campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last
year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21,
1807. Infidel and libertine turned minister in the Church of England, he was
secure in his faith that amazing grace would lead him home.
I was able to consult the 1779 edition of Olney Hymns in the Harry
Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Printed
in London by W. Oliver, it was in beautiful condition. The paper was almost as
white and supple as it was when it came off the printing press. Those were the
days before acid became a part of the papermaking process. Acidic paper, used in
most books since sometime in the nineteenth century, has a relatively short life
span, ultimately becoming brittle and crumbling. The 1779 Olney Hymns, on
the other hand, will be in excellent condition for many future generations of
Newton and Cowper scholars.
It was a thrill to handle the edition of Olney Hymns in which the hymn
that came to be known as Amazing Grace was first published. But it was an
even greater thrill when I opened the front cover and saw the inscription,
"Rev. Wm. Smith, the gift of the author." The "Wm." is
unclear, but "Rev." and "Smith" are very distinct. Of
course, both Newton and Cowper contributed to Olney Hymns, but
considering that Newton's contributions were far greater in number than Cowper's,
it is likely that Newton himself was the author mentioned in the inscription.
I consulted other editions of Olney Hymns in microprint in the
University General Libraries Microforms Unit. Mircoforms are very necessary
adjuncts to scholarship, since no library can possibly have all the hundreds of
thousands of rare and not so rare books available in microform, but those
microprint editions of Olney Hymns were cold and sterile compared with
the 1779 edition that I had held and that John Newton had held over two hundred
years before me.
4051 Valley Dr