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Through many dangers, toils and snares,
These words come from one of our most beloved and well-known spiritual songs: Amazing Grace, written by John Newton between 1760 and 1770. In these words, Newton tells us of his life-changing experience with a storm at sea. Here is his story, one so extraordinary that one biographer claimed his life could have been the model for Coleridge's Ancient Mariner in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
John Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, He was the son of a merchant ship commander who sailed the Mediterranean Sea. His religiously devout mother died when John was a six years old. John eventually joined his father aboard ship at the age of eleven, accompanying him on six voyages before the elder Newton retired.
At nineteen, young Newton was impressed into the service of a British man-of-war, the HMS Harwich. Conditions aboard ship were intolerable to Midshipman Newton (some say he was deeply in love and pining for her), and he deserted. Quickly captured. Newton was flogged publically and then broken to the rank of common seaman.
Newton was soon transferred onto a slave ship working the Sierra Leone coast. By this time, Newton, by his own accounts, was truly the wretch he would describe in Amazing Grace: "My whole life, when awake, was a course of most horrid impiety and profaneness." Though given religious instruction when young by his mother, Newton had long since lost any religious convictions and strayed far from any state of grace, drinking heavily, urging crew members into foolish acts and frequently enraging his superiors with his words and deeds.
Early in the Year 1748, the captain of the Greyhound, an acquaintance of his father, rescued Newton from his trials. With hindsight, Newton would later see that this was the beginning of several acts of grace that would transform his life in the coming months.
Having sailed from Africa to Brazilian waters to catch the favourable trade winds, the Greyhound next turned north to New England. It was on its return leg home to England in early March 1748. Sailing through the fertile fishing waters of the Grand Banks region off New England, a brutal storm caught the Greyhound.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
As we pick up the story, John Newton is asleep in his bunk as the gale tosses the Greyhound.
Suddenly, a crashing wave sweeps across the deck, its seeping waters into the flooding cabins below. A shower of seawater wakes the dozing Newton. Staggering to his feet, he moves to the companionway ladder to climb to the deck. As he is about to ascend, the captain shouts through the hatch, ordering him to find a knife. While Newton searches for the knife, another sailor ascends the ladder and is caught by a wave and swept overboard, a fate that could have been Newton's.
Wind and wave batter the Greyhound, and although leaking badly, she remains afloat, perhaps buoyed by the cargo of beeswax and wood filling her hold. For hours, Greyhound's crew labours to plug with cloth the many leaks springing from the gaps in her timbers. As the leaks are attended to, other seamen pump the bilge furiously. In despair, a shipmate cries out: "No, it is too late now, we cannot save her, or ourselves."
Newton's confidence is shaken. But much to his amazement, he prays for divine assistance and mercy. "If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us." He then loses hope: "What mercy can there be for me?" But his faith has reawakened, and he returns to the pumps.
Alongside his crew mates, Newton pumps with "almost every passing wave breaking over my head; but we made ourselves fast with ropes that we might not be washed away." With each descent into a wave trough, Newton fears "she would rise no more."
By noon, he is too exhausted to continue and staggers to his bunk to await the death that is sure to find him. But no sooner does he reach his bunk when the captain orders Newton to take the helm. For the next eleven hours, John Newton steers the ship through the gale's fury while his shipmates bail on.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
Then, as Newton would later recall in his anonymously published letters, Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars: "There arose a gleam of hope. I though I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour; I began to pray." The wind soon begins to slowly abate, leaving the ship half derelict but still afloat, rolling in the subsiding seas.
For several days, the Greyhound drifts slowly eastward. Then a mountainous island appears to be rising out of the east. Certain they had reached Ireland's coast, the crew rejoices by finishing the last of the bread and brandy. But as it rises, the "island" breaks into wisps of cloud.
Newton is labelled a Jonah by the captain, and the crew considers dumping Newton overboard before coming to their senses. "We began to conceive hopes greater than all our fears."
The wind turns to the east and pushes the heeling Greyhound forward. On April 8th, she eventually reaches Donegal, Ireland, just as the last of the food is being cooked and water barrel drained. They had been saved.
Reflecting on what had transpired and his words in the teeth of the storm, Newton believed that God had addressed him personally through the storm. Newton felt called to a higher purpose: "Thus to all appearance I was a new man....I consider this as the beginning of my return to God, or rather of his return to me."
For the rest of his life John Newton would observe the anniversary of March 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. "On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters." on that day, Grace, an undeserved kindness in the language of the devout, had begun to work for him. "Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;'tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."
But John Newton's conversion was not yet complete. Needing cash to establish a household (he married in 1750), he remained at sea for several years thereafter. Newton continued his involvement in the slave trade and ultimately became the captain of his own ship. In 1755, serious illness forced Newton to give up seafaring. A self-educated man, he found work as surveyor of tides at Liverpool from 1755 to 1760.
During these years, Newton met John Wesley, founder of Methodism, whom he came to deeply admire. He also cultivated a friendship with George Whitefield, deacon in the Church of England and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church. With these influences, his life began to sail a new course. Newton now wished to follow the ministry.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
Newton quickly applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. Initially rebuked, Newton persisted and was eventually ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1764. His first call was to the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. There, he became such a passionate, evangelistic preacher using his experiences at sea and under storm as examples in his sermons that his Olney church filled so often that it had to be enlarged. Newton's popularity drew crowds in other parts of the country as well.
In 1767, the poet William Cowper settled in Olney. He and Newton became good friends, and Newton proposed the troubled poet help prepare the religious services as a form of psychotherapy. For a series of weekly prayer meetings, they set a goal that one new hymn be composed for each. The collaborations were later collected as Olney Hymns, first published in 1779, sans music. In it, Newton had penned 280 hymns, Cowper, 68.
One of those hymns, contained the stanza:
The gath'ring clouds, with aspect dark,
A rising storm presage
O! To be hid within the Ark,
And shelter'd from its rage!
Another, originally published under the heading Faith's Review and Expectation, was the account of that North Atlantic gale and the conversion of John Newton. It later became popularly known by its first two words: Amazing Grace. The origin of the hymn's melody is, however, unknown. Most hymnals cite it as an early American folk melody since the hymn came to America without a definite melody. (The Olney Hymnal had words only.) In his PBS documentary on the song and its history, host Bill Moyers suggests the melody for Amazing Grace may have originated, as many then did, from a slave song.
After twenty years at Olney, Newton left to become rector of St Mary Woolnoth Church in London. By now, Newton had taken up the task of educating his followers on the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. Among his large London congregation was William Wilberforce, who one day would become a major social leader fighting for the abolition of slavery.
When not preaching or writing hymns, Newton found time for other writings. Many historians credit Newton's journals and letters for much of what we know today about the Eighteenth Century slave trade. Preaching until the final year of his life, Newton died in London December 21, 1807.
Nearly two centuries after Newton penned those stirring words, his hymn would become a standard among American spiritual and gospel music, recorded and made a "hit" by such artists as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Collins.
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