Lessons of Amazing Grace
John Telgren

As a young child, John Newton's mother tried to raise her son in the faith. She took him regularly to a dissenter church at a time when less than one percent of the population went to churches associated with that group that was derived from the puritans. She taught him to pray, read scripture, and memorize various hymns and religious doctrines.

Life took a drastic turn when at age 7, his mother died. His less that religious father did not know what to do with him, because his father was a sea captain. For five years, he tried to put his young son in an orphans home as he was getting ready to go to out to sea. Young John begged his father to be able to live with him. So, from age 11 to 17, he went with his father out to sea. It was here that John began to learn the life-style of the world and lost interest in godly living. Even between voyages at home, his step-mother allowed him to run free, and he got into all kinds of trouble.

Even though he succumbed to temptation, he tried to change. He would pray, read scripture, and engage in various spiritual disciplines. He later remembered that his motivation in these activities was not to please God, but to escape damnation.

At the age of 17, he met the love of his life, Mary Catlett. Mary was a very religious young lade who loved John, but did not appreciate his professional life. His father had bragged that John would soon make his fortune as he arranged for his son to go to Jamaica with a ship owner who had interest in sugar and slaves. John decided to miss the voyage in order to stay and woo miss Catlett.

John's father decided that he needed discipline, to he sent him on a month long voyage as a common sailor without the protection of his father from the harshness of a sailor's life. It was here that John lost the last of his religious upbringing. He engaged in many unsavory and sinful behaviors, including swearing and fornication. God seemed a distant character with no meaning or claim on his life.

On this voyage, Newton had a dream that deeply disturbed him. He was on the deck of the ship when a man gave him a ring and told him to guard it well, because it was the key to all happiness. Another man later ridiculed his faith in the trinket so much that John tossed it in the sea. Then the tempter told him that he had cast away God's mercy, and that he was doomed for the fires of hell. Newton was now terrified. The first man returned and recovered to ring for him. But he did not return the ring because he was going to keep it for him, not trusting John with the ring. For a time, Newton distanced himself from the crew, tried his best to avoid the sinful lifestyle of the sailors, and attempted to once again engage in religious observances. However, this did not last. He eventually fell back into the depraved lifestyle he had before.

After returning from this trip, he missed another voyage, on which he would have been an officer, in order to be with Mary. He was captured by a by a naval press gang and forced into the Navy. He was treated very harshly with severe discipline, half starved, driven, from dawn till night, until he was broken. The captain of that ship told Newton that life was for the taking. You had to live it up now because tomorrow you may die. God was nothing more than a phantom created by kill-joy religious types. Newton took the "ring" given to him by his mother, and tossed it overboard. On this ship, Newton struck up a friendship with a younger midshipman named Job Lewis, a man who clung to his religion enough to keep from succumbing to the low morals of the crew. Newton sought to "free" Job from his confining religion, and soon succeeded. Job became like the rest of the crew.

In 1744, when the ship docked in Dover preparing for its next voyage, Newton learned it was to be a five year voyage. He worried that his beloved Mary would be lost to him forever. He tried to escape, but was caught, then stripped whipped publicly 24 times with a cat of nine tails. 9 X 24 = 216 welts! He was now scorned by the entire crew and the captain. He thought many times about taking his life in order to escape his misery.

By a remarkable coincidence, he was able to be transferred to another ship that was bound for the slave trade. The captain of this ship was a friend of his father's and Newton found himself working in the slave trade. His immorality surpassed his former immorality. He indulged in every depravity available to the extent that he often shocked even the older men.

During this time, he picked up a copy of a book, "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas A Kempis, a devotional guide. At first, it meant little to him. But then something significant happened that began a turn in his life. In a voyage from Brazil to Newfoundland in 1748, the ship was full of slaves. Newton woke in the middle of the night to find that the ship was in a fierce storm and began to break apart. Another crewmember had already been swept away by the sea. Tied to the ship to keep from being swept away, Newton pumped and bailed all night until he was called to steer the ship. The whole time, he is reflecting on his life and his former faith, his blasphemies and mockeries of the Gospel, his former deliverances from death and disaster, and that God who had always seemed so distance. At first, Newton felt his was irredeemable. He has sinned so arrogantly with such depravity that he did not feel there could be any hope for God's forgiveness. As the scriptures he memorized as a child came to mind, he clung to those that taught of God's grace toward sinners. He then dared to breath his first prayer in years. He later recalled that this was "the hour he first believed."

Unfortunately his new faith faltered. The next year, he took an assignment on yet another slave ship, and backslid entirely. It was when he became ill to the point of death that he came to himself. He felt he had crucified the Son of God afresh, yet still mustered the strength to pray. After this, Newton never went back on his faith. From that point forward, he developed a regular habit of prayer, and his watchword became humility. He later wrote, "What a poor creature I am in myself, incapable of standing a single hour without continual fresh supplies of strength and grace from the fountain-head."

He managed to win Mary's heart and they were married. When he was preparing for another journey, he ran into that young man he "deconverted" from Christianity, Job Lewis. He invited Lewis aboard, which wound up being a mistake. Lewis was now a hardened sinner that fouled the air with his language and inflicted his cruel temper on the crew. Newton managed to get Lewis to transfer to another ship while in port. Newton gave Lewis some advice, then left him. On the new ship, Lewis engaged in every depraved vice, and came down with a fever. As Lewis lay dying, he was overcome with despair and rage, screaming that he was going to hell, but was unable, or unwilling to seek God's mercy. Newton felt horrible remorse for a long time after that. When Newton himself contracted a similar fever shortly afterwards, he had a lot to think about. He prayed for a better understanding of the faith so that he could help sinners to find the path of righteousness, and for freedom from the slave trade and the sea-faring life.

In 1754, Newton met a Alexander Clunie, Scottish captain who was not engaged in the slave trade, and a Christian. This was the first close Christian friend Newton every had. Clunie was also knowledgable in the faith, so Newton eagerly drank in everything he taught. Newton learned that God was not some distant figure, but that he could be very near and his love could be warmer than he had ever imagined.

Newton's prayers were answered. He arrived back in England and never sailed for a living again. He got a shore job as a tide surveyor and often had a lot of free time. He became involved in bible studies and home meetings of "religious societies" that met for testimony and mutual edification. He devoured the preaching and teaching of George Whitefield and attended and shadowed him everywhere he went. He drank in any Gospel message he could get. At home, he began teaching himself the biblical languages and devoured books on ministry.

Newton began to feel that God did not want him remain in civil service. Eventually, at the age of 39, he became a minister for the small town of Olney, which was made up of poor, common people. Newton cared for the people there, preaching, singing, visiting, and establishing mid-week meetings of all kinds. He had a heart for children, and took the time to teach them the fundamentals of the faith personally, and also instituted a 3-day annual meeting in which ministers from the surrounding area came to preach and teach for the benefit of the area's youth. Newton was known for his open, emotional, and humble manner in the pulpit. Sometimes he would inject a prayer in the middle of a sermon. But Newton also spoke out against excesses and the reckless behavior that he saw in some of the festivals of his town. When he moved to London to minister there, he gained a lot more influence. One of the young men he influenced was William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in abolishing slavery in England. Newton worked hard and tirelessly along with Wilburforce to end the slave trade. During the debates in Parliament, Newton was called on to testify concerning the dark depravities of the slave trade as an insider. It took several years, but slavery was abolished in England.

Newton wrote many hymns and even published a hymnal with his close friend, William Cowper. A theme that occurs in much of his writing is the amazing grace of God. Newton never forgot where he had come from. Over the fireplace in his house was a plaque that read,

"Since thou was precious in my sight, thou has been honourable (Isa 18:4), BUT Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee (Deut 15:15)."

When he died, Newton left behind this epitath on his gravestone.

"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 laboured to destroy."

Sometimes Newton would write a song to go along with his Sunday sermon. One such sermon was based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, which reads, "Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house that You have brought me this far? This was a small thing in Your eyes, O God; but You have spoken of Your servant's house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the standard of a man of high degree, O LORD God." The song that Newton wrote from this text became one of the most recognizable and beloved hymns, Amazing Grace.

In America, the words corresponded to the American experience in a unique way, not only articulating the typical conversion experience, but also articulating the dangers, toils, and snares of the American pioneers who suffered in trying to find a new home, and find comfort in the grace that will lead me home.

The song also resonated with American slaves and became one of their most beloved songs. The song appeared to tell their story, it fit. The very fact of their survival proved that God had looked after them so far. They might be downtrodden, but there were still victories to be won, temptations to resist, diseased to be freed from. Like Paul and Silas, they were able to sing in their chains. Even though slaves first learned Amazing Grace from the churches of their white masters where they were taken to ensure that the learned how to be worthy, obedient servants, they found within the words of this song the secret of inner release. From the lyrics, slaves gained assurance that it was possible to by physically enslaved and yet spiritually free. It was possible to be materially impoverished and yet have an overflowing account of righteousness in Heaven.

We do not have all the verses in many of our hymnals, but here are the words as originally written.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now I'm found, Was blind, but now I see. 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believed! Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; 'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who call'd me here below, Will be forever mine. Some versions of the hymn include an additional verse: When we've been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise Than when we'd first begun.
This verse is not by Newton. It was added to a version of "Amazing Grace" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, as it appears in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

This song reminds us that God's grace can reach anyone, including a man like John Newton. Listen to what scripture teaches us.

"The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with {Him} in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be {in the likeness} of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with {Him,} in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him" (Rom 5:20-6:8).

God's grace is greater than our sin. Because of God's grace, he sent Jesus to die for our sins, to be buried, and to raise from the grave. When we die and are buried with him, then we can be raised to walk in newness of life. When we do this, we are freed from sin, the old man is crucified with him. We are no longer slaves of sin.

We are about to sing this hymn and recognize God's amazing grace. You cannot sing this song if you have not allowed our Lord to wash away your sins. He wants to do so, that is why he died on the cross. But the next step is yours.

Sources used includes articles from Christian History Magazine, A Song is Born by Robert Taylor, and Cyberhymnal.com