Biography of John Newton, Author of Amazing Grace

Slave Trader Turned Evangelical Preacher

John Newton
John Newton (1725-1807), English clergyman and religious poet, friend of Cowper and with him wrote 'Olney Hymns,' including the popular 'Amazing Grace'.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

John Newton (1725–1807) began his career as a sailor and slave trader. Eventually, he became an Anglican minister and outspoken abolitionist after a dramatic and pivotal conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. Newton is best known for his widely loved and timeless hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Fast Facts: John Newton

  • Known For: Anglican clergyman of the Church of England, hymn-writer, and former slave trader turned abolitionist who penned “Amazing Grace,” one of the most beloved and enduring hymns of the Christian church
  • Born: July 24, 1725 in Wapping, London, UK
  • Died: December 21, 1807 in London, UK
  • Parents: John and Elizabeth Newton
  • Spouse: Mary Catlett
  • Children: Adopted orphan nieces, Elizabeth (Betsy) Catlett, and Elizabeth (Eliza) Cunningham.
  • Published Works: An Authentic Narrative (1764); Review of Ecclesiastical History (1770); Olney Hymns (1779); Apologia (1784); Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade (1787); Letters to a Wife (1793).
  • Notable Quote: “This is faith: a renouncing of everything we are apt to call our own and relying wholly upon the blood, righteousness, and intercession of Jesus.”

Early Life

John Newton was born in Wapping, London, the only child of John and Elizabeth Newton. As a young boy, Newton was nurtured in the Reformed faith by his mother, who read the Bible to him and prayed he would become a minister.

Newton was only seven when his mother died from tuberculosis, putting an end to his spiritual training. Although his father remarried, the boy remained detached in his relationship with both father and stepmother.

From age 11 to 17, Newton accompanied his father, a Navy ship’s captain, on his sea voyages. After retiring from the sea, the elder Newton took an office job with the Royal Africa Company. He began making arrangements for his son to go to Jamaica for a lucrative business opportunity as a slave plantation overseer.

Meanwhile, young John had other ambitions. He went to Kent to visit with family friends of his late mother and there met and fell instantly and hopelessly in love with Mary Catlett (1729–1790). The lovestruck teenager delayed so long at the Catletts’ sizeable estate in Kent, that he missed his ship to Jamaica, and effectively evaded his father’s plans. 

Many Dangers, Toils, and Snares

Deciding to discipline his unsettled and impulsive son, Newton’s father sent the young man back to sea to work as a common sailor. At 19, Newton was forced to enlist in the British Royal Navy and serve as a crewman aboard the man-of-war ship Harwich.

Newton rebelled against the severe discipline of the Royal Navy. He became desperate to find a way back to his beloved Mary and soon deserted. But he was captured, flogged, chained in irons, and eventually discharged from service. Newton would later describe himself at that time as arrogant, rebellious, and living a recklessly sinful life: “I sinned with a high hand,” he wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.”

Newton ended up taking a job with a slave trader, a man named Mr. Clow, on an island off the western coast of Africa, near Sierra Leone. He was treated so brutally there that later he would remember the time as the lowest point in his spiritual experience. He recalled himself then as “a wretched-looking man toiling in a plantation of lemon trees in the Island of Plantains.” He had no shelter, his clothes deteriorated to rags, and to curb his hunger, he resorted to begging for food.

John Newton's Slave Trade Journal
A page from the journal of John Newton (1725-1807). A print from The Slave Trade and its Abolition, edited by John Langdon-Davies, Jonathan Cape, London, 1965. Print Collector / Contributor / Getty Images

The Hour I First Believed

After more than a year of living in abusive conditions, in 1747 Newton managed to escape the island. He took work aboard the Greyhound, a ship based out of Liverpool. By this time, Newton had begun to read the Bible again, as well as Thomas a KempisThe Imitation of Christ, one of the few books on board the ship.

The following year, as the slave-laden ship was bound for home, it encountered a violent North Atlantic storm. On March 21, 1748, Newton was awakened in the night to find the ship in dire trouble, and one sailor already washed overboard. As Newton pumped and bailed, he became convinced that he would soon meet the Lord. Recalling Bible verses about God’s grace towards sinners that he had learned from his mother, Newton whispered his first feeble prayer in years. For the remainder of his life, Newton would remember this day as the anniversary of his conversion—“the hour he first believed.”

However, it would take several months before Newton’s newfound faith would become firmly established. In his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative (1764), Newton wrote of an episode of serious backsliding. Only after falling ill with a violent fever did he return to his senses and surrender wholly to God. Newton claimed that from then on, he experienced a new kind of spiritual freedom and never again went back on his faith.

A Life of Joy and Peace

On February 12, 1750, Newton returned to England and married Mary Catlett. He remained devoted to her for the rest of his years.

Once married, Newton served as captain of two different slave ships during the next five years. Eventually, Newton came to hate slavery, profoundly regretting his involvement in it and fighting fiercely against the institution. Later in life, he passionately supported William Wilberforce in his campaign to end slavery in England, provided evidence to the Privy Council, and authored Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade (1787), a tract promoting abolition.

In 1755, Newton abandoned the maritime trade to take a well-paid government post as “Tide Surveyor” in Liverpool. In his spare time, Newton attended church meetings in London, where he became acquainted with the “Great Awakening” preacher George Whitefield and John Wesley, soon coming under their influence. At home, he studied theology, Greek and Hebrew languages, and adopted moderately Calvinist views.

In 1764, at age 39, Newton was ordained an Anglican minister of the Church of England and took a parish in the small village of Olney in Buckinghamshire. Finding himself in his element, Newton thrived as pastor of the humble parish, preaching, singing, and caring for the souls of his flock. During his 16 years at Olney, the church grew so crowded that it had to be expanded.

The vicarage in Olney, Buckinghamshire
The vicarage in Olney, Buckinghamshire where Newton wrote the hymn that would become "Amazing Grace". Public Domain 

Amazing Grace

In Olney, Newton began writing his own simple, heart-felt hymns, many of which were autobiographical in nature. Often he wrote hymns to complement his sermons or to speak to the specific need of a church member.

William Cowper moved to Olney in 1767 and joined Newton in his hymn writing endeavors. Cowper, an accomplished poet, was brilliant but given to acute bouts of depression. In 1779, he and Newton published the famous Olney Hymns, a collection celebrating their friendship and spiritual inspirations. Some of Newton’s most notable contributions include “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and “Amazing Grace.”

In 1779, Newton was invited to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, one of the most esteemed parishes in London. All across England and beyond, people flocked to hear him preach, sing his hymns, and receive his spiritual advice. He served the parish in London until his death in 1807.

St. Mary Woolnoth, London
King William Street and St. Mary Woolnoth, London, 19th century. The baroque church where John Newton served from 1779 to 1807. Print Collector / Getty Images

Blind, But Now I See

Toward the end of his life, Newton developed blindness but continued to preach tirelessly. Well known and dearly loved, he became a father figure to the younger clergymen who sought to learn from his wisdom. When William Wilberforce converted to Christianity in 1785, he turned to Newton for counsel.

John’s wife, Mary, passed away from cancer in 1790, leaving him with a profound sense of loss. The couple never had children of their own but had adopted two orphaned nieces from Mary’s side of the family. Elizabeth (Betsy) Catlett was adopted in 1774, and later Elizabeth (Eliza) Cunningham in 1783. Eliza died as a child, but Betsy remained close to Newton all his life. She even helped care for him in old age after Newton’s sight failed and his health weakened. 

On December 21, 1807, Newton died peacefully at age 82. He was buried beside his beloved wife at St. Mary Woolnoth in London.

Grace Will Lead Me Home

One historian described John Newton as a “brash, purposeful, big-hearted man, who knew how much he owed to God, and was willing to make himself vulnerable and allow himself to be embarrassed in the quest to pay back some small part of that debt.”

Page 53 in Olney Hymns (1779)
Page 53 in Olney Hymns (1779), the verses that would become known as "Amazing Grace.". Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Captured in the words of “Amazing Grace,” is John Newton’s life story. Still today, nearly 250 years after it was written, his anthem is sung around the world by Christians of multiple denominations.

From his pivotal conversion until the day of his death, Newton never stopped marveling at the amazing grace of God that had changed his life so radically. As his eyesight faltered and his body grew frail, friends encouraged the aging man to slow down and retire. But in reply, he declared, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”

Sources

  • Christian History Magazine-Issue 81: John Newton: Author of “Amazing Grace.”
  • Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (p. 896).
  • “Newton, John.” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (p. 476).
  • Christian History Magazine-Issue 31: The Golden Age of Hymns.
  • 131 Christians everyone should know (p. 89).