Today is John Newton’s 262nd re-birthday. Two hundred sixty-two years ago today–April 8, 1748–the most wretched of slavers, the most passionate of blasphemers, stumbled off the storm-ravaged deck of the merchant vessel The Greyhound. Villagers from Lough Swilley, Ireland, had rowed out in longboats to rescue the ragged survivors. Not only had John survived the storm, but he had been captured by God’s Amazing Grace. From that day on, he was a new man in Christ.
People often ask me where I got my abolitionist passion. Well, here is the answer: From this man. From John Newton, whose life I have been privileged to tell, in two separate books.
If all you know about John Newton is the through-the-glass-very-darkly peek you got in the movie Amazing Grace, please dig deeper. He did not end his life a beaten down shell of a man. No. In fact, he was William Wilberforce’s spiritual guide, the one who encouraged him to stay in public office. “Many men can be preachers,” John said, “but few can affect the heart of a nation. We need you in politics.”
John Newton was a hard-hitting evangelical preacher in the garb of an Anglican clergyman, first in relative obscurity, then at St. Mary’s Woolworth church in London’s bustling business district. He was also an unabashed and unstoppable abolitionist who passionately spoke and wrote from his own experience. In the end, he risked his reputation, his wife’s emotional well-being, even his cherished right to preach so that he could bear witness to the slave trade horrors he had witnessed and in which he had participated. He was determined to help bring about laws that would stop the slave trade. What he said and wrote shocked a nation and helped to turn its heart against the African slave trade.
From Slave ship captain to preacher to abolitionist reformer, John Newton affected a wide swath of our Christian faith. Today, most people who know his name, know him as the author of Amazing Grace. These words, sung to the riveting tune of an old slave song, are his moving testimony. The story of his life.
John Newton lived long enough to see the first anti-slavery law passed in England in March of 1807. He died nine months later at the rich age of 83.
Happy re-birthday, John. I look forward to spending 500 or 800 years chatting with you in heaven.
For a moving encounter, check this out:
“Every generation seems to have people who make a habit of embodying evil, people who have to look up in order to see the bottom. When they come to know God they are examples to others of Gods amazing grace. I was one of these.”