by John Newton
Influences on John NewtonIn the late 1700s, members of the clergy were expected to write verses and sermons for their congregations, but few priests were as experienced in the idea of spiritual redemption as John Newton. Having been born to an English shipmaster in 1725, Newton grew up around the sea and eventually became a sailor himself. Sailors are not known to be particularly pious, and Newton was no different. In fact, he was worse. After the Royal Navy pressed him into service, Newton attempted to desert, which earned him a demotion, flogging, and public humiliation. He was then transferred to a slave ship, but his antics led to his being stranded in West Africa under the control of a slave trader there. He was eventually rescued and returned to England, but only after he had seen the error of his sinful ways and converted to Christ.
Even though Newton converted to Christianity in 1748, he continued to work aboard slave trading ships for another six years. After that, it was still another decade before he ultimately became a priest in 1764. His road to redemption was long and laborious, but he was finally on the path that he believed God had set for him. Around 1772, Newton wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” as a sermon for his congregation, using his own experiences as a past sinner for inspiration.
While Newton’s seafaring experiences certainly helped in writing hymns and verses, it certainly could not have hurt that he had also become friends with the writer William Cowper, another fervent evangelical, as well as several prominent hymn writers of the time. The collection of hymns that first included “Amazing Grace,” Olney Hymns, was actually co-written with Cowper. Such strong literary influences most likely affected Newton almost as much as his sinful past.