This biography was written anonymously and published by the American Sunday School Union. It has been reprinted by Attic Books, an imprint of New Leaf.
John Newton is best known as the author of the world’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”—but in his lifetime, he was known as a slave-trader who eventually became a champion for abolitionism. He spent much of his adulthood in the Atlantic slave trade before eventually becoming a priest. His epitaph, which he wrote, summarizes his biography:
John Newton, Clerk,
Once an infidel and libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the faith he
Had long labored to destroy.
The Life of John Newton (1831) is a short biography that simplifies his life story from primary sources for a young audience. In spite of its brevity, this book tells a great deal about Newton’s long and dramatic life.
Once an infidel and libertine
John Newton was drafted into the British Navy at the height of their activity, and he eventually went AWOL at one of their ports of call. He was discovered, disgraced, stripped of his rank, and kept below deck like a slave aboard the navy ship. His time below deck was so miserable that he appealed for an alternative—any alternative—and was eventually cast out on the African “Slave Coast.”
A servant of slaves in Africa
Remarkably, Newton, a young white Englishman, became a slave to black African woman. His owner was technically a man, but he usually answered to the mistress. Being nearly starved, Newton was forced to subsist on scraps and raw roots. This dragged on for over a year until he was able to beg his way onto a British ship.
Preserved, restored, pardoned
For most of his twenties and thirties, Newton established himself as a slave-trader, eventually commanding his own ship. Life as a sailor was horribly fraught with danger, and Newton had many brushes with death. On March 10, 1748, the ship on which Newton served was dreadfully damaged during a storm in the night. The sea broke over the deck. The ship filled with water and began to sink; but it was loaded with light cargo. It thus continued in a half-sunk position, with damaged sails, for four weeks, while the crew’s rations were reduced to one fish for twelve men, and the pumps were being worked day and night. Newton was greatly affected by this near-death experience and began to take religion in earnest.
During his next voyage, one of his daily duties was to row to shore for supplies. As he was preparing to put off, the captain came and said that he had “taken it in his head” that Newton should remain on ship. The boat sank that day, and the crew that went in his stead drowned. Other dramatic near-death experiences are also described in the book; later on, in Liverpool, he was late to inspect a ship, and it blew up while he was on the way.
Appointed to preach the faith
In 1758, he applied for ordination to the Archbishop of York, but he was rejected because of certain doctrinal differences. Later, in 1764, he was accepted and took the curacy of Olney, at the age of 39. At Olney, Newton became acquainted with William Cowper, the brilliant poet. His biographer writes that Newton’s house “was an asylum for the perplexed or afflicted.” It is little wonder, then, that Cowper, who had been traumatized as a schoolboy and afflicted with depression, was a friend of Newton. Newton and Cowper wrote Olney Hymns (1779) together, which included many hymns now famous. They had plans to write more, but they were prevented by Cowper’s mental illness.
Newton wrote many works aside from hymns, but none of them are commonly read now. In 1764, the year he arrived at Olney, he published an autobiography (An Authentic Narrative), which went through several editions. After he became a priest, he also published a few volumes of sermons and other works. His Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788) established him as an abolitionist, repudiating the trade to which he had devoted his twenties and thirties. His letters were highly regarded by Charles Spurgeon.
In 1779, Newton took up a rectory in London, “in an opulent neighbourhood, with connexions daily increasing.” He continued to preach into his seventies, though losing both sight and hearing.
John Newton is regarded as an early champion of evangelicalism, and indeed he was. But there is one aspect of his life that runs counter to some narratives of his life: his support of slavery after his conversion experience. Evangelical narratives tend to divide life into two phases: life before conversion, in which we are wicked, purposeless, and unhappy; and life after conversion, in which we are motivated, cheerful, and uncompromised. Why then did Newton continue to work as a slave trader after he became a committed follower of Christ?
This question is addressed several times throughout the book. In Newton’s own words, which are worth reading at length:
The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that knowing the state of this vile traffic to be as I have here described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not, at the time, start with horror at my own employment, as an agent in promoting it. Custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly; for I am sure, had I thought of the slave-trade then, as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it. Though my religious views were not very clear, my conscience was very tender, and I durst not have displeased God, by acting against the light of my mind.
Indeed, a slave-ship, while upon the coast, is exposed to such innumerable and continual dangers, that I was often then, and still am, astonished that any one, much more so many, should leave the coast in safety. . . . I considered it as the line of life which God in his providence had allotted me, and as a cross which I ought to bear with patience and thankfulness, till he should be pleased to deliver me from it. (p. 79-80)
Though atrocious, everything the slave-traders did was upheld by law. It therefore took great courage of mind to consider that this formidable institution, which had continued from the dawn of man, was something to be opposed. Newton was a slave-trader in the 1740s. At that time, William Wilberforce was not even born. John Wesley did not write his Thoughts upon Slavery until 1774.
In the 1780s, the tide was turning against the slave trade. When Newton, now a prominent London minister, came out publicly against the slave trade with his pamphlet, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), it had an immense influence on English opinion. Eventually, in 1807, the British slave trade was abolished, and in 1833 the abolition of slavery followed.
Some readers are turned off by this biography’s age, but I found it to be simply written and easy to read. It was written for the American Sunday School Union, evidently for a young audience. The quotations from Newton himself, though, are clearly in the higher style characteristic of the eighteenth century, and are a bit of a slog.
Related: Olney Hymns, Thoughts upon Slavery, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade.
“A minister, wherever he is, should be always in his study. He should look at every man, and at every thing, as capable of affording him some instruction.” (p. 131)
“That one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves, should be plucked from his forlorn state of exile on the coast of Africa, and at length be appointed minister of the parish of the first magistrate of the first city in the world—that he should there not only testify of such grace, but stand up as a singular instance and monument of it—is a fact I can contemplate with admiration, but never sufficiently estimate.” (p. 110)
“I have heard Mr. Newton say, when he has heard particular inquiry made about the last expressions of an eminent believer, ‘Tell me not how the man died, but how he lived.'” (p. 125)
“I hope I am upon the whole a scriptural preacher: for I find I am considered as an Arminian among the high Calvinists, and as a Calvinist among the strenuous Arminians.” (p. 134)