A Free Man’s Song
John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of the 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. Near 16 years as curate of this Parish and 28 years as Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth. – John Newton (Epitaph)
I wonder if John Newton was being somewhat ironic when he wrote in his own epitaph, “A servant of the slaves of Africa.” Newton was 11 years old when he first went to sea with his father. He grew up sailing. It was part of him. But as was the case with most young men at the time, something darker was also part of him. Slavery permeated society around the globe. He even experienced it himself. In more ways than would be expected of a young white man. Soon he would run away and become lost. Later he would be found. But no 11 year old ever thinks his kind of life ever lays in store.
As a young man, his father arranged that he work on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica. He would surely have been a slave boss. Instead he jumped aboard a ship bound for the Mediterranean, and something greater took him for a journey of a lifetime. A few months after his fateful decision, he was pressed into Naval Service on a ship called the HMS Harwick. This was his first taste of personal slavery. Later, after being caught trying to escape, he received 96 lashes after which he contemplated murdering the captain of the ship and then taking his own life by throwing himself into the sea. But instead, after recovering physically and mentally, he transferred to a slave trading ship bound for West Africa called The Pegasus. Newton did not get along with the Pegasus’ crew, however, and they decided to leave him with a slave trader in Africa who gave him to his wife, Princess Peye of an area now known as Sierra Leone. While in her custody he was mistreated like any other slave. He later wrote of the experience in his epitaph, “Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa…”
But a Father’s love never forgets His children. John Newton’s Father sent a sea captain to find him and rescue him. On the way home, that ship of rescue began to sink and John Newton began to pray. Somehow the cargo shifted and plugged the hole sinking the ship. John gave his heart to God on that ship. But God was still working on a process in his heart.
John Newton would go on to be a captain of slave ships ferrying precious cargo from one continent to another. All along the way, God was working. He was about to use this evil to stir a love in Newton’s heart that would change the world for millions. I don’t know when the song came to him. Maybe it was on a slave ship somewhere out in the ocean. His heart stirring with an unknown love song. Maybe it was years later after he had left the trade and turned to the church as an anglican priest. I’m not sure when exactly he was struck with the hymn, but some 25 years after he left slavery, he published a prayer put to music entitled “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” An indisputable triumph of grace.
It was around this time that John Newton came to know a young Member of Parliament named William Wilberforce, an abolitionist and deeply Christian man who was ready to resign his post, frustrated with the government and it’s seeming inability to simply do the right thing. But Newton urged the young parliamentarian to serve Christ where he was. Eventually, Wilberforce along with his friend and Prime Minister, William Pitt, would succeed in abolishing slavery in the United Kingdom in 1806. Who knows how much longer it would have taken without the influence of the abolitionist, former slave trader, preacher, and poet John Newton.
Today there is a town called Newton in Sierra Leone that is supported by missions to this very day from Newton’s hometown of Olney. From free to slave. From slave to free. From lost to found. From enslaver to freedom giver. John Newton described his life with God best through that song “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” It starts out like this… “Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” Of course we know the song today simply as “Amazing Grace” and countless tears have been shed through the love of Christ that can be so thoroughly recognized in it’s simple words.
Pages could and have been filled with the stories of John Newton and his most famous hymn. Movies have even been made about his struggle. But as I sit here with limited time and words, I can’t help but think that maybe the greatest point is that God used a lifetime of experiences as a slave, slaver, and free man to compose the words of love to a world He intended to show His mighty love to. Maybe it was through a lifetime of struggle that God intended to use a single man to change a world of frees and slaves. Whatever it was, it was only through God’s love that Newton could truly become “a servant to slaves in Africa.” And through it all, he’s served us all with the words of grace he was inspired to pen. What an amazing grace God has for His people that He would send His own Son to save a wretch like me.
May you experience true grace today,