John Newton (1725–1807)

John Newton was born in London in 1725 into a Christian home, but his godly mother died when he was seven. After two years of schooling, during which he learned the rudiments of Latin, he joined his father at sea when he was eleven. He grew into a licentious and godless sailor. The one restraining influence of his life was his faithful love for his future wife, Mary Catlett, formed when he was 17 and she was 13.

In 1743, while going to visit friends, Newton was captured and pressed into the naval service by the Royal Navy. He became a midshipman (a low-ranking officer). At one point he tried to desert and was punished in front of the crew of 350. Stripped to the waist and tied to the grating, he received a flogging of eight dozen lashes and was reduced to the rank of a common seaman.

Following that disgrace and humiliation, Newton initially contemplated murdering the captain and committing suicide by throwing himself overboard. He recovered, both physically and mentally. Later, while the ship was en route to India, he transferred to Pegasus, a slave ship bound for West Africa.

He did not get along with the crew of Pegasus, and in 1745 they left him in West Africa with Amos Clowe, a slave dealer. Clowe took Newton to the coast and gave him to his wife, Princess Peye of the Sherbro people in Sierra Leone. She abused and mistreated Newton just as much as she did her other slaves. In 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to search for him.

A chance reading of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ (written in Latin ca. 1418–1427) sowed the seed of his conversion. When he was 23 years old he spent a night in the steering of a water-logged vessel in the face of apparent death, and after this experience he began to read the Bible and other religious literature. He accepted the doctrines of evangelical Christianity on 10 March 1748, an anniversary he marked for the rest of his life. From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking.

Although he continued to work in the slave trade, he had gained sympathy for the slaves during his time in Africa. For the six following years he commanded a slave ship but deepened his Christian belief. In 1750 he married Mary Catlett.

After suffering a severe stroke in 1754, he gave up seafaring and slave-trading activities but for some time still invested in others’ slaving operations. While working as a tax collector in Liverpool, England, Newton came under the influence of George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley (the founders of Methodism). Newton began to study for the ministry, including studying Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac.

In 1764 he was ordained in the Church of England. By 1780 he opposed slavery, and eventually became an ardent abolitionist.

Young churchmen and people struggling with faith sought his advice, including such well-known social figures as William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament who had recently suffered a crisis of conscience and religious conversion while contemplating leaving politics. Wilberforce consulted with Newton, who encouraged him to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was”.

Newton served the church in various roles for over 40 years. His legacy to the Christian church includes his collaboration with William Cowper in publishing Olney Hymns (1779), to which Newton contributed 280 hymns. Many of his hymns are still popular today, including:

He lived to see the British Empire’s abolition of the African slave trade in 1807, just months before his death in London.

(Distilled on 16 May 2020 from short biographies by Bert Polman and H. Leigh Bennett on the page on John Newton, and from the Wikipedia page on John Newton.)