He was born in London in 1725. His father was a sea captain, trading on the waters of the Mediterranean. His mother was a devout woman who taught her boy how to read the Bible and memorize Scripture at an early age.
Like St. Paul, he was not illiterate when it came to the Bible. But memorizing the Catechism is no guarantee that one is laying hold of the grace – or that once having it – a person might not cast it off.
His mother died while he was still a boy. At 17 he went to sea with his father. He picked up the salty sailor’s way of life. He lived in gross sins of the flesh. Even the other sailors were shocked at his profanity and his gruesome oaths in the name of God. Once drafted into the Royal Navy, he jumped ship. Discipline was not his thing. The navy found him, brought him back, had him flogged before the mast and thrown in the brig. Later, he went to work on a slave-trading ship, showing himself as cruel as anyone in the dirty business. You get the picture. He had cast God behind him.
But amid a terrible storm at sea, his heart’s memory was invaded again by the Bible passages he had learned at his mother’s knee – Bible passages which spoke of horrible judgment for those who have known the way of truth and then have thrown it away. Later in his cabin, he dug out his New Testament and began to read. Later he was transferred to another ship where a Christian captain taught him the gospel of Christ all over again.
He finally became a preacher and an eminent hymn writer. He spent 16 years pastoring a church at Olney and 27 years at a church in London.
The man’s name? John Newton. His most famous hymn? Amazing Grace. John Newton had learned about grace – God’s undeserved love, and the mercy and peace that flow from it.
Such grace, mercy and peace turned his life around. He did not sing “Amazing Grace” and then go back to getting drunk, sleeping with his girl friend and avoiding God’s house. Instead, above his desk in his attic study was a Biblical motto: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”
He magnified God’s mercy on his deathbed, saying, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” This was the mercy to which he testified on his gravestone: “John Newton. Cleric. Once an infidel and a libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long labored to destroy.” “Amazing Grace – How Sweet The Sound!”