I’m sure I have heard the story of how John Newton came to write ‘Amazing Grace’ a hundred times or more. It always went something like this;
John Newton was a slave ship captain during the 1700’s. One night there was a huge storm on his ship and he became a Christian that night. He wrote Amazing Grace after his conversion and then when he got back to England he started to speak out against the slave trade.
Unfortunately as the story was passed around it got a bit distorted. Reading John Newton; from disgrace to amazing grace I have discovered so much about John Newtons life that I never knew.
The story is quite different. John Newton had a rough life until he was about 20 (a lot of the trouble of his own making). He was a slave himself for a while, kept prisoner in Africa. Finally he was able to make a good life for himself in Africa by trading in slaves, but was persuaded to return to England by his father. On that trip home (where he was a passenger) he begun to read the Bible and while on that trip there was a huge storm. John Newton describes that storm as the moment of his conversion in his diary.
However he didn’t come to a real understanding of what a relationship with God was like, or Christian life looked like until many years later. It wasn’t until after his conversion that he became a slave ship captain. Even though he was a lot nicer to his slaves than most other captains, he behaviour to a modern reader seems awful.
John Newton had to give up slave trading because of his health (though in hindsight Newton realises God was at work). He grew in his faith while living/working in England and after a number of years decided to become a minister. It was another 7 years before he was actually ordained.
It was at his first parish that John Newton wrote a number of hymns, including ‘Amazing Grace’.
Even though the true story is different to the one I had heard before, I think it does accurately show just how far John Newton was from God and how amazing it is that God would save a wretch like him. Even when he believed in God there were parts of his life where he was blind, but God caused him to see.