John Newton was 11 years old when he went to sea with his father, a shipmaster on merchant ships. After six voyages, his father retired and made plans for his young son to work at a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Those plans were interrupted when he was captured and pressed into service in the Royal Navy. After a miserable experience in the navy, he transferred to a slave ship bound for West Africa. While there the young man was treated much like a slave by an African duchess. He was alone, abused, and angry. Finally rescued by a sea captain enlisted by his father to search for his lost son, Newton returned to England. For almost ten years, he continued to be involved in the slave trade. He captained his own ships on three voyages with human cargo. Over this regrettable period of his life, the stench of the ships finally seeped into his soul. His own spiritual struggle would one day serve as a source of warning and encouragement to those who wrestled with faith and needed direction.
One of those who sought him out was a young member of Parliament named William Wilberforce. The young politician was suffering a crisis of conscience and spiritual doubt, and was contemplating a departure from the political scene. Newton pleaded with him to stay in Parliament and told him to “serve God where he was.”
Criticized for not separating completely from the heinous trade upon his conversion, Newton finally came to terms with himself and his faith. He became a fervent ally to Wilberforce and others who sought to abolish the African slave trade. He lived to see the passage of the landmark legislation, the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
With the collaboration of poet William Cowper, Newton wrote a number of hymns late in his life. His life testimony is not one of perfection; he admitted his flaws: “I was greatly deficient in many respects.” His story is best told in his most well-known hymn, Amazing Grace. “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
John Newton was a work in progress … much like your life and mine. The grace he acknowledged was a gift he didn’t deserve. Neither do we. Amazing.