Born on July 24, 1725, in London, John Newton, an only child, would grow to become a seaman, deserter from His Majesty’s Navy, captain of a slave trader and, eventually, a pious, hymn-writing preacher.
Newton’s mother died when he was not quite seven years old. His father, captain of a merchantman engaged in Mediterranean trade, quickly arranged for his young son to attend boarding school. However, resentful of his mother’s death (they were close; she taught him to read before the age of three, and by the age of four, he could quote scripture), Newton did not take to this life. On his 11th birthday, he shipped to sea with his father.
Newton went on to work as a seaman aboard various vessels engaged in European trade until he was caught by a press gang from HMS Harwich. Through his father’s influence, he was appointed a midshipman rather than an ordinary Jack Tar, but he chafed at the rigidity of military life and soon deserted. Captured just a few days later, he was first imprisoned and then returned to Harwich, where he was flogged and demoted to common seaman. When the opportunity arose for a transfer to a West Africa-bound merchantman, Newton quickly seized it. A chance meeting with one of the ship’s owners led to an apprenticeship in the slave trade. This potentially lucrative position, however, was short-lived. He was accused of stealing and no longer trusted. When his mentor left the ship to conduct business ashore, he would often be left shackled on deck without protection from the elements for days at a time.
Salvation eventually arrived in the form of a ship’s captain, who had been sent by Newton’s father, offering him return passage to England aboard his ship, Greyhound. Once again, however, Newton’s fortunes turned sour. After relating the details of his luckless life, the ship’s captain came to view him as a Jonah, the harbinger of a ship’s bad luck. In January 1748, Greyhound set sail for England by way of Newfoundland to fish cod. In a fit of pre-departure revelry, Newton became drunk and jumped overboard. As was commonly the case for sailors of the era, he could not swim and was rescued by his shipmates only moments before being swept away by the current.
Ten days after leaving the Newfoundland fishing grounds, Newton awoke to a flooding compartment. It was March 10, and Greyhound was in the grips of one of the western Atlantic’s violent spring gales. Greyhound was shipping great quantities of water in the process. Thanks to the cargo of beeswax and timber, the ship remained afloat as some of the crew labored frantically to patch it while others manned the pumps.
On March 21, Newton, too exhausted to continue at the pumps, took the helm. Subsisting on half a salt cod per day, to be divided amongst the crew of 12, Newton continued to be blamed for the ship’s extremity. Shortly after he took the wheel, however, the wind turned favorable, allowing a now gaping hole in the ship’s hull to be turned to leeward while the ship made easting. Greyhound arrived at Lough Swilly, Ireland, exactly four weeks from the day it entered the storm that nearly wrecked the ship.
Newton would ultimately go on to positions as first mate and then captain of his own slave-trading ships, making several passages between West Africa, Britain and North America.
Thanks to these and other trials, Newton turned to faith for comfort and guidance. He eventually became a strong opponent of the slave trade and an ordained minister. His testimony on the atrocities of the slave trade were heard by William Wilberforce, a member of parliament and an abolitionist, as well as King George III, resulting, ultimately, in the abolishment of slave trading and the emancipation of slaves in England and all its colonies in 1807 and 1833, respectively. Perhaps, however, Newton will best be remembered for one of the nearly 300 hymns he authored, Faith’s Review and Expectation — also known as Amazing Grace.