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John Newton, slave ship captain & writer of hymns.
Andrew Pearce   12 September 2006

Newton was born on 24th July, 1745, in Wapping, London. His father was the commander of various merchant ships sailing in the Mediterranean, and was rather pompous and aloof with his son. Despite having been educated by Jesuits in Spain, John,Senior, was "not affected by religion", according to his son, but his mother was a devout Christian, who attended a Nonconformist meeting house in Grave Lane. Captain Newton was away so often that his son's upbringing was almost entirely in the hands of his mother, By the age of four, he could read English, and a year later, he was learning Latin. His mother's dream was that John could become a preacher, but he could not enrol at an English university, not being an Anglican communicant, so she planned that he would go to St Andrew's university. But before John's eighth birthday, Elizabeth had died of consumption.

The boy was sent to a boarding school for 2 years and was miserable there, while his father remarried and started a second family. School holidays were spent with his new stepmother, and the only future open to him was to become a sailor, which he did, in 1736, sailing for 2 years with his father. The father then retired and arranged for a friend, Joseph Manesty, a Liverpool captain, merchant, and shipowner, to give young John a job in Jamaica, which would last for 5 years. Before John embarked, however, he was invited to visit the home of the Catlett family, in Chatham, who had cared for his dying mother. Here he was attracted to their elder daughter, Mary, and so decided to refuse the job in Jamaica, and to remain in Chatham. To his surprise, his father now arranged a shorter engagement for him in the Mediterranean. In November 1743, Newton again visited Mary, but she was still only 15. He was now pressganged into the Royal Navy and sailed in the “Harwich".

When it reached Madeira, he managed to get discharged. After boarding another boat, he served with Captain Clow and became involved with the slave trade on the Guinea coast, where he learned the horrors of that work, and was also badly treated himself. His father had tried to find him and, eventually, he was discovered and brought back to England but it was a long voyage and he made the best use of the captain's library, by studying Euclid and “The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas ? Kempis. This made him feel angry as it reminded him of his mother's teaching, and he remembered Isaac Watt's hymns. He reacted by inventing new forms of blasphemy, and enjoyed shocking the crew, so that the captain begged him to desist. Then his ship was engulfed in a violent storm during which men were washed overboard and John was at the wheel for 2 days. He was frightened and in despair of survival so he prayed to be saved.

He felt his tongue was cleansed. Back in England, under Manesty's influence, he joined the Church of England, attending St George's, Liverpool. In February, 1750, he married Mary Catlett, and when his father died 3 months later, John was glad to give up the sea and become a customs officer, while undertaking a variety of preaching assignments as an evangelical Christian in and around Liverpool.

In 1758, Newton applied to the Bishop of York to be ordained but was refused as he was not a university graduate. John Wesley and Rev. John Fawcett were greatly impressed by his religious qualities and Rev. Thomas Haweis asked him to expand his writings into a lengthier autobiography.

In 1769, in Olney, he met Lord Dartmouth who greatly encouraged him. Then he wrote, "Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade". In 1788, William Pitt introduced him into the Privy Council to give evidence of the terrible cruelty he had witnessed to slaves. He also campaigned against the death penalty, then used for 200 offences.

Lord Dartmouth was able to persuade the Bishop of Lincoln to ordain Newton and he was then appointed to the parish of St Peter and St Paul, Olney. It was here that he began to write his hymns with William Cowper, the poet, including the most enduring, "Amazing Grace".

His final appointment was to St Mary Woolnoth, in Lombard St, London in 1780, where he collected very large congregations and proved a strong evangelical influence.

He died in 1807, having said to a friend, "I am packed and sealed and waiting for the post".

Bibliography: "Amazing Grace" by Henry Hunter "John Newton" by Bernard Marlin.