John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken. Crossway. 2007. 400 pages. Audiobook read by Jonathan Aitken.
Before reading this book I didn’t know too much about John Newton. What I did know was that he was the author of the much-loved hymn “Amazing Grace” and that he was a friend of William Wilberforce, who led the effort to abolish the slave trade in England.
The author of this book is a former Member of Parliament. After he pleaded guilty to perjury he went to prison where he was converted to the Christian faith. In some ways you could say the author has also led a life of disgrace to amazing grace. He was once considered a possible Prime Minister, but he fell into disgrace with prison, divorce and bankruptcy. In prison he was assisted by Chuck Colson, who was also converted in prison.
Aitken tells us that Newton had an unhappy childhood. His mother Elizabeth died of consumption when John was only 6. His strict father was largely absent at sea. His mother loved Reformed Theology and wanted her son to become a minister. After his mother’s death his father quickly remarried and kept John at a great distance. John was sent to boarding school and his formal education would end at age 10 when his father decided he would go to sea. Throughout the book the author recounts events in Newton’s life that Newton would attribute to divine providence.
Newton’s early life was one of blasphemous bad behavior. A press gang found him and forced him to serve in the Royal Navy when he was out for a walk. Although he was given a promotion, he lost the favor of his captain because of his bad behavior. He deserted the Navy, which was punishable by the death penalty. He was stripped and whipped, degraded in rank and moved to the lower deck with the men he had treated so poorly when he had a higher status. During this time he had thoughts of suicide. He was eventually dismissed from the Navy and got a job on a ship with someone his father knew. But he mocked the captain and was described as being exceedingly vile.
He then went to work on a slave trade ship to Africa. He was falsely accused of stealing from the captain and punished severely. As a result, he was treated as a slave himself. He was then hired by another slave trader. There was sexual promiscuity with the African women. His father asked a friend to rescue him. On the trip home Newton read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and the Bible, though he was still a blasphemer. When he returned he began to believe the Gospel and attend church, but reverted back to his old ways within a few months. He would never see his father again.
Newton, who had long desired to marry Polly, then took a job on a slave trade ship. He received a positive response about marriage from Polly before leaving on the ship. When he returned he married Polly and became a slave trade ship captain. Newton would always be concerned about his love for Polly becoming idolatry. He would continue to fight against his lust for African women. On the ship he would begin reading works of theology. He also would implement worship services on his ship on Sundays, before having to resign as a captain due to health issues.
He would be mentored by George Whitefield and John Wesley, and accepted a good position as Surveyor of the Tides in Liverpool, the busiest slave trade port in England. As others had done, he would receive gratuities from ship owners, stopping this practice after reading Wesley’s writings.
Once Newton felt the call from the Lord to become a pastor, he faced six years of rejection trying to be ordained by the Church of England because he was a Methodist. He would write his autobiography – An Authentic Narrative, which would become a best-seller and is still published today. It was part adventure story, love story and spiritual story. He was at last ordained by the Church of England and would become the Curator at Olney, where he would serve for sixteen years. It was here that he would meet William Cowper, one of the greatest poets of the 18th century. Cowper would be one of his closest friends and partners in ministry. The two wrote the hymns included in the Olney Hymns. Newton was a dear friend to Cowper who battled with depression and multiple suicide attempts.
The author spends a good amount of time discussing Newton’s famous hymn “Amazing Grace”, which was written to supplement a sermon he preached. Newton wrote the words to the hymn. The music was called “New Britain” (author unknown). William Walker put the lyrics and music together.
The final verse, which begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years….” was not written by Newton. It first appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The song is special to many, and especially to my family as we sang it holding hands around my mother’s hospital bed as she was removed from life support in 1996.
Newton’s influence – due to his books and Olney Hymns – would extend his influence and popularity well past his Olney congregation. As his influence outside of his church grew, it diminished inside his church, as many began attending other churches. He received many offers to leave Olney, eventually accepting a position at St. Mary Woolnoth in London. In London, he would help to found the Eclectic Society, a discussion group. He received some criticism as he got involved in political issues. He criticized the British actions against the colonies.
He and Polly would adopt their 5 year old niece Betsy as their own daughter when Newton was 50. Polly, suffered from health issues during most of their marriage. They would also adopt Elisa, a niece dying of consumption. Elisa lived with them for two years before dying at age 14.
Some wanted to call Newton a Calvinist, a Methodist or a Puritan. But he didn’t like labels. He would serve as mentor and pastor to William Wilberforce. He convinced him to stay in politics and make a difference there, rather than going into “full time Christian work”, a great example of someone integrating their faith and work. He partnered with Wilberforce on the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain.
Toward the end of his life his lost Polly to cancer, as well as his friend and benefactor John Thornton. He would also preach the funeral of long-time friend Cowper. Adopted daughter Betsy and her husband would provide care for Newton, who preached until his mind no longer permitted it.
Some of Newton’s last words were: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
I highly recommend this well written book on the life of John Newton.
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