Easter Sunday was John Newton’s 264th re-birthday.
On April 8, 1748, three agonizing months after a horrendous storm all but ripped apart the merchant ship Greyhound and swept all supplies overboard, the wrecked hulk drifted close to the shore off Lough Swilly, Ireland. When the good people of the village caught sight of it, they rowed their longboats out in search of survivors. There were only nine. One was John Newton.
But John was more than a survivor. Notorious as an obnoxious blaspheming troublemaker, the worst of the worst, he
had encountered God’s Amazing Grace. John Newton was a new man.
People often ask me, “You’re a 21st century abolitionist? Where did that come from?”
From my acquaintance with John Newton. Yes, yes, I know he was born centuries before me. But I have been privileged to explore his story in depth for the two books I wrote on his life. And after so much research, after delving so deeply into his own writings, I feel as though he is a dear friend.
John Newton was a vile slave ship captain who became a hard-hitting evangelical preacher in the garb of
an Anglican clergyman. He was also an unabashed and unstoppable abolitionist who passionately spoke and wrote from his own slave trading experience. In the end, he risked everything—his reputation, his wife’s emotional well-being, even his cherished right to preach—in order to bear witness to the slave trade horrors he knew to be true. He had been a part of it. Determined to help bring about laws that would stop the slave trade, he shocked England with the truth, and he helped to turn the nation’s heart against the African slave trade.
Today, most people know John Newton as the author of Amazing Grace. The words, sung to the soul-wrenching tune of an old slave song, are his testimony. They are the story of his life.
John Newton lived to see the first anti-slavery law passed inEngland 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.
“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 God’s amazing grace. I was one of these.”