I wrote this article several years ago and I thought it was worth revisiting. During these times of turmoil, concern and world events, it’s good to know God is with us.
One of my very favorite hymns is Amazing Grace. I’ll wager that it’s yours, too. But do you know the story of the author, John Newton and what led him to write this wonderful song of testimony?
John Newton’s life was filled with many unexpected events. Losing his mother, when he was just six, Newton frequently looked to his father – a sea captain – to help him get through difficult predicaments. At age eleven, the young lad was already at work on his father’s ship.
As a young man, he found himself working on a slave ship after he was traded from the vessel he’d been on. At one point, he worked on land, in Sierra Leone. Falling out of favor, he was forced to work as a slave. To use a phrase of the time, he was “growing black.”
Becoming commander of a slave-trade ship himself, Newton experienced firsthand the evils of selling human beings as though they were animals. Later, when he wrote An Authentic Narrative (in 1760), he said: “I know not that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer.” He was talking about himself.
In 1748, he was on board the Greyhound. Largely incorrigible, he derided people of faith and, according to his own journals, he did – and said – all kinds of things which shocked even the hardened crew. In January, the Greyhound was sailing home to Liverpool. They would cover 7,000 miles before they made landfall.
During the trip, Newton looked for books to read. He found only a few. One, by George Stanhope, was called The Christian’s Pattern. A devotional, without theological dogma, it was simple in style and based on the work of Thomas à Kempis (a Renaissance monk). Newton began to study it.
On March 9th, the crew encountered a ferocious westerly gale. Sleeping below deck, Newton was awakened when he felt a jolt and water began to flood his cabin. Furiously pumping and baling during the storm, the crew thought the ship would sink. Tethered to the deck, so as not to be washed overboard, they did what they could to keep it afloat. Later, in his Narrative, Newton describes the storm:
The sea had torn away the upper timbers on one side, and made the ship a mere wreck in a few minutes...Taking all the circumstances, it was astonishing, and almost miraculous that any of us survived to relate the story. We had recourse to the pumps; but the water increased against our efforts...We had but eleven or twelve people to sustain this service; and, notwithstanding all we could do, she was full, or very near it: and then, with a common cargo, she must have sunk of course; but we had a great quantity of bees wax and wood on board, which were specifically lighter than the water...
Newton kept pumping as the waves crashed over his head. Around noon, exhausted after pumping for about nine hours, he briefly rested. Thereafter summoned to steer the ship, he thought about the events of his life and how many times he’d been spared from some calamity.
the extraordinary turns in my life; the calls, warnings, and deliverances I had met with... about six in the evening [I heard] that the ship was freed from water, there rose a gleam of hope. I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour; I began to pray.
Although the Greyhound survived the storm, the crew was far from land. Their next worry was starvation, since much of their food had been washed overboard. Four weeks after the gale, the ship reached Lough Swilly, in northwest Ireland. They were safely home. Newton’s Narrative describes how close they’d still come to disaster:
When we came into this port our very last victuals were boiling in the pot: and before we had been there two hours, the wind, which seemed to have been providentially restrained till we were in a place of safety, began to blow with great violence, so that if we had continued at sea that night in our shattered, enfeebled condition, we must have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayer.
Years later, as a clergyman writing hymns with his friend William Cowper, Newton recalled the Greyhound events. He didn’t need to compose music for his lyrics because, at the time, people did not sing the words – they chanted them. He did not name his song “Amazing Grace” – that came later – but hereafter are three of his original verses:
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.
I have had the privilege of visiting the The Parish Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Olney, England where the still-popular song was first introduced. It has stained-glass windows which depict two contrasting scenes. The first is a ship going “through many dangers.” The second is a ship brought safely home.
I also stood in the shadow of the church’s 185 foot tall spire at John Newton’s grave and thanked God for His “Amazing Grace.”
With a song in my heart,
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