Newton, an only child of John Sr and Elizabeth Newton, was born on July 24, 1725 in London, England. Thirteen days before his 7th birthday, his devout mother died of tuberculosis. His father, a commander in the Mediterranean trade, remarried the following year. At the age of 11, the young boy was taken on his maiden sea voyage. Over the next seven years he made several more trips.
At the age of 18, Newton - a confused adolescent - was press-ganged on board HMS Harwich, a man-of-war. Unable to hold up under its rigid discipline and unwilling to handle its daily routine, the defiant sailor deserted ship. He was sought and found, stripped and flogged. Filled with bitter rage and full of black despair, the demoted midshipman was eventually discharged from the British Royal Navy and dispatched onto a slave trading ship.
After he enjoyed six months of freedom on the open sea, the 20-year-old then endured a long year of captivity in West Africa. There his dream of work and wealth turned into a nightmare of sickness and starvation while he served a cold-hearted English master and suffered at the cruel hands of his African mistress. Soon after his release, the man of the sea became a master of slaves.
At the age of 22, Newton - a wretched sinner, was converted from a daring blasphemer of God into a devout believer in Christ. His "great deliverance" took place on March 21, 1748 while sailing back to England from Africa. He and the crew of the Greyhound, a cargo ship, were caught in a violent storm. Battered by monstrous winds and beaten by mountainous waves, the tired sailors, like their torn sails, were helpless as they battled against the raging seas, trying desperately to save their badly leaking boat and rapidly sinking vessel.
For the young seaman, however, the day of salvation was here; the hour of decision had arrived; the moment of truth was at hand. In the midst of the chaos and the confusion, the frenzy and the fear, Newton called on the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity and truth, crying out in genuine repentance for the Redeemer's tender mercies. And God saved him.
Seven years later Newton, a growing disciple, turned his back on the sea and “the business at which his heart shuddered”. Over the next four years, he searched the scriptures daily and studied its truths diligently. On December 16, 1758, he surrendered his life to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
After some religious opposition, John was eventually ordained as a curate at the age of 40. He was appointed to the parish church of Olney, near Cambridge. This working class village, in the county of Buckinghamshire, was known for its bobbin lace manufacturing and Shrove Tuesday pancake race.
Five years later Newton, a singing preacher, was enjoying a harmonious life at home and exercising a holy leadership at church. Conservative and reformed he was, but conventional and rigid he was not!
Being a man of innovation and initiative, he searched for different means to reach his community and sought dynamic methods to teach his congregation. In the midweek service for example, he introduced his evangelical “low Anglican” parish to new hymns and spiritual songs, some he wrote himself and others he co-wrote with his friend William Cowper.
Amazing Grace was one of those fresh compositions that God inspired his dedicated heart and instructed his disciplined mind to complete in late December of 1772.
Originally entitled Faith’s Review and Expectation, the prayerfully chosen lyrics were carefully written for a New Year’s Day service. After reading the Biblical passage of 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 and reviewing his own life in the light of David’s response, Newton reflected on how far he had come since his seafaring days of sinful lifestyle, self-indulgence and slave trading.
The Vicar of Olney, like the King of Israel, was overwhelmed by God's amazing goodness and awesome greatness. It was right at this point, what would eventually become his best-known work was born. Here is how it appeared in Olney Hymns, 1779 (but in today's text):