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John Newton - The Story Behind Amazing Grace: From Slave Captain To Humanitarian

By Kris Deichler, Associate Partner & Mentorship Coach, Lighthouse International

We have all come across dark times in our lives where, for whatever reason, we could not see a way out. I'm sure we have all done and said many things that, in hindsight, we wish we could change or take back because of those we hurt in the process. This is a story about how nothing in our past need define who we are as a person and that without exception, we always have a chance to turn things around; there is always hope and there is always a chance to forgive and to be forgiven.

You will likely have heard these words before:

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...

They are from the first verse of the song, Amazing Grace. Originally a Christian hymn published in 1779, it has long since outgrown its religious roots and spread into mainstream popular culture, now known and sung throughout the world. It became the anthem Native Americans of the Cherokee nation sang, on their 'Trail of Tears' in 1838-39. It has been sung on both sides during bloody wars and conflicts, and by civil rights protesters on their defiant marches during the 1960's. It was played during 'the death of Spock scene' in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and is often sung in auditions for the X-Factor or American Idol. It is today one of the most covered and performed songs in history; from Baptist choirs to Elvis Presley, Il Divo and Mumford & Sons.

It has evolved into a universal stirring anthem for redemption and forgiveness, and a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy. What you might not know is the incredible story behind its creator - a slave ship captain turned clergyman; the humanitarian, John Newton.

John Newton - From Slave Captain to Humanitarian

John Newton lived quite an extraordinary life. He was born the son of an English sailor and a devout Christian mother in 1725 - his mother tragically died just before his 7th birthday. Despite her influence, the behaviour of his youthful years and young adulthood was far removed from that of the humble clergyman he became in later life. Newton followed his father into the Merchant Navy, sailed the Mediterranean, and began a life of profanity, gambling, drinking and debauchery.

In 1743, while visiting friends, he was captured and pressed into service with the Royal Navy. He became an ardently open critic of the Navy ship's Captain which ended in him being flogged in front of the crew for an attempted desertion and then transferred to crew a slave ship bound for West Africa. Again, he did not get on with the new ship's Captain, who later enslaved Mr Newton by giving him to his wife, an African princess.

She forced him to work on a plantation and treated him as inhumanely as the slaves he had once transported. In 1748 though, he was daringly rescued by a friend of his father's and returned to his merchant profession and slave trading.

It was on his voyage home that a profound event occurred; a catalyst towards the reformation of his character and way he lived his life. During a terrifying and severe storm off the coast of Ireland, John Newton suddenly feared for his life and called out to God, imploring that his life be spared, on the promise that if he were to survive, he would transform and lead a good life.

From that point on he began to read the Bible and left his drinking and debauchery behind him. He did not renounce his trade immediately but did mark that stormy night as the beginning of his transformation. Eventually, he would become a clergyman and an early voice in the movement to abolish the slave trade. He became a mentor and father figure for the movement's political champion - William Wilberforce. In his pamphlet, called Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he wrote an apology for "a confession which comes too late" and wrote that:

"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."

Amazing Grace, The Tale of Hope And Forgiveness 

Years later, after becoming a clergyman, John Newton stood out as one who would openly share his own life experiences with people, thus making himself very accessible to those he spoke to, compared to the more distant men of the cloth. An unpolished speaker, he often said his mission was to "break a hard heart and to heal a broken heart".

Finally turning his hand to hymn writing, in 1772, John Newton would eventually come to write the immortal lyrics to the song Amazing Grace.

The song, most likely originally a poem, would become John Newton's story of his transformation; one that began that stormy night whilst sailing off the coast of Ireland. After a long campaign for the abolition of Slavery, alongside William Wilberforce, he eventually died in 1807 aged 82, just 8 months after the British Parliament passed a law to abolish the trading of slaves, across the whole of the British Empire.

There is so much to take from this story. John Newton's incredible life and the haunting words of Amazing Grace, show that there is always a bigger picture. Though at times, we might find ourselves feeling and even believing that life is unbearably hard for us, we never know what is around the corner, and how we can positively change our character and the view of our experiences. Whatever we might have said and done in the past, no matter how terrible or regretful we might think that is, we have a chance in every moment to make things right again. In fact, we can often look back on some of the most challenging experiences in life, and begin to see them as some of the best things that have happened to us; because of what they helped us to realise, and who they helped us to become.

So don't ever give up hope, don't ever feel you're trapped in a place you don't want to be, and don't ever believe that you cannot become every bit the person, you wish you could be.

Here's a brilliant scene about John Newton and his friend William Wilberforce from the film of the same name as his song: Amazing Grace (2006) and a video of a great African version of the song that I wanted to leave you with:

If you enjoyed this story, here are some more we'd highly recommend:

The Four Candles - A Powerful Story of Hope

Wiliam Wilberforce - How His Conscience Helped To Abolish Slavery

Chloe Paige(X-Factor UK) - Amazing Grace


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