WITH slavery being a major topic at the moment, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit John Newton, a slave ship captain who repented and became an Anglican clergyman. Among his works are Amazing Grace.
I wrote about him last year in connection with his hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, and here again is a potted biography.
Newton was born in Wapping, east London, in 1725, the son of a sea captain. His mother was a devout nonconformist and taught him the rudiments of Christianity, but she died just before John turned seven.
At 11 he left school and started going to sea with his father, becoming by his own admission an all-round bad lot: ‘A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was.’ His father retired when John was 17, and he signed on with a merchant ship. While ashore a year later in 1743, he fell victim to a press-gang and was forced to join the Royal Navy. (‘Pressing’ men into service was legal and commonplace in those days. Gangs would patrol near ports and were particularly interested in men with seafaring experience. Merchant seamen could be recognised by their clothing. They would first be asked to volunteer for the Navy and if they refused they would simply be captured.) He became a midshipman aboard the warship HMS Harwich but he tried to desert. This was a most serious crime, and if he had been an enlisted man he would have been hanged. As it was he was sentenced to 96 lashes, the punishment carried out in front of the 350-strong ship’s company, and reduced to the rank of common seaman.
Presumably because he was a nuisance he was traded in 1745 to Pegasus, bound for West Africa to pick up slaves to be taken to the Caribbean and North America. The crew of Pegasus did not like him either and they abandoned him in West Africa with a slave dealer named Amos Clowe. In turn Clowe handed Newton on to his wife, Princess Peye of the Sherbro people of Sierra Leone, as a slave. The princess treated him as badly as her other slaves.
After three years he was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked to search for him by his father, and set sail for England aboard the merchant ship Greyhound. Off the coast of Ireland the ship hit a terrible storm and came close to sinking. Newton prayed for the first time in his adult life and subsequently read Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ and the Bible. [At this point I wrote: ‘I can’t discover how he was able to read well enough, having finished his education at 11’. Several commenters observed that in those days he would have had a pretty good education by 11, and that Abraham Lincoln, for example, had two years’ schooling at the most. I have also found his own account of his boyhood in which he writes: ‘I was rather of a sedentary turn, not active and playful, as boys commonly are, but seemed as willing to learn as my mother was to teach me. I had some capacity, and a retentive memory. When I was four years old, I could read (hard names excepted) as well as I can now.’]
By the time he reached Britain on March 10, 1748, an anniversary he marked for the rest of his life, he had accepted the doctrines of Christianity, though he did not consider himself converted. However from that point on he avoided profanity, gambling and drinking.
In 1750 he married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, and they adopted two of her orphaned nieces.
Despite his new attitude, he continued to work in the slave trade, obtaining a position as first mate on the slave ship Brownlow, headed from Liverpool to Guinea. While in West Africa he became ill with a fever and professed his full belief in Christ. Still he did not give up the slave trade and made three more voyages as captain of the Duke of Argyle and the African. He had a stroke in 1754 and gave up seafaring, but retained a commercial interest in the slave business.
In 1755 he was appointed as a tide surveyor (customs officer) at the port of Liverpool. In the city he attended meetings held by the evangelistic preacher George Whitefield and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. They inspired him and he taught himself Greek and Hebrew, becoming well known as an evangelical lay minister. At this point he gave up his links with slavery. In 1757, he applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, but because he was deemed to be a Methodist it was more than seven years before he was accepted.
He was ordained in June 1764 and appointed curate at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney, Buckinghamshire. In 1767 the poet William Cowper moved to Olney and the two men became good friends, collaborating on a hymn book called Olney Hymns which was published in 1779. Newton contributed How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds as well as his other well-known works, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken and Amazing Grace, with its heartfelt first verse:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
I will write more fully about Amazing Grace another time.
Newton said that How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds was inspired by Song of Songs 1:3: ‘Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out’ (NIV). These are the words, though not all the verses are always sung:
1 How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
and drives away our fear.
2 It makes the wounded spirit whole
and calms the troubled breast;
’tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary, rest.
3 Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!
4 By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.
5 Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
6 Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.
7 Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death!
It is usually sung to the tune St Peter by Alexander Robert Reinagle (1756-1809) who was born in Portsmouth to a Hungarian professional musician father and a Scottish mother. He studied music with his father, then in Edinburgh. At first he made a living in the shipping industry, but in 1786 he decided to try his fortune as a professional musician in the newly independent United States of America. He travelled to New York and later moved to Philadelphia, where he helped revitalise the musical life of the city, introducing the works of Haydn and Mozart as well as his own compositions.
Here is the choir of York Minster:
An arrangement by Lawrence Lloyd Benson and Elochukwu Oku:
This is Matthew Perryman Jones:
Newton spent 16 years in Olney, moving in 1779 to the Hawksmoor church of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London, a premier posting. He became an ally of William Wilberforce, leader of the parliamentary campaign to abolish the African slave trade.
Newton remained publicly silent about his role in the trade until 1784, 34 years after he retired from it, when he published a pamphlet called Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade. He detailed the horrific conditions on the slave voyages which could last as long as 13 weeks, when as many as a quarter of the captives would die. ‘During the time I was engaged in the slave trade,’ he wrote, ‘I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. It is, indeed, accounted a genteel employment and is usually very profitable.’ He admitted that this was ‘a confession, which . . . comes too late . . . It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders . . . I ought not to be afraid of offending many by declaring the truth [about] a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive, as the African Slave Trade.’
He had copies sent to every MP, and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required reprinting.
His wife died in 1790, and three years later he published Letters to a Wife, in which he expressed his grief.
The law abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire received Royal Assent in March 1807 and Newton died in December that year, aged 82.
He wrote his own epitaph which can be seen on his tomb in Olney cemetery:
‘John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavers 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 laboured to destroy.’
After the previous article appeared last February I was contacted by Marylynn Rouse, director of the John Newton Project, which has a wealth of information about him. She kindly sent me a book called 365 Days with Newton, which contains daily readings from Newton’s sermons and writings, for which I am most grateful.