John Newton was a prominent Anglican clergyman who is probably best remembered as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton lived a very interesting life with certain elements which seem almost paradoxical. He lived in a very tumultuous period of English history, when society was undergoing major reforms and shift, and Christian evangelists were leading the way. He interacted with a number of notable British people as a priest and counselor, including prominent members of parliament and society.
Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping. He sailed on several voyages with his father, also a sailor, as a youth after the death of his mother at age six. His father had high hopes for him; the plan was to install John Newton as a slave master on a plantation in Jamaica, but the young man was pressed into naval service before this could occur. When he attempted to desert, he was severely punished, and he ended up taking service on a slave ship. Oddly enough, it was during his time on a slaver, as they were then called, that he began to read the Bible and other Christian texts, and he ultimately converted to evangelical Christianity.
Paradoxically, after his conversion, John Newton continued to work on slavers, ultimately working his way up to the position of captain. He only retired in 1754 because of injuries which prevented him from pursuing a life at sea, and then he began to study to become a priest. In 1764, he was accepted as an Anglican minister, and he was sent to Buckinghamshire, where he became a prominent dissident priest, supporting other evangelicals and social reformers. In 1779, Newton was offered a place in London, where he worked until his death.
Many people have difficulty reconciling the idea of Christian values with the captain of a slave ship. In fact, later in life, John Newton became an ardent abolitionist, even publishing a tract on it in 1787, and he wrote about about his struggles with Christian values and slavery at other times during his life. Ultimately, he expressed repentance for his role in the slave trade, and some of the hymns which he published in 1779, including “Amazing Grace,” hinted at this.
John Newton died in 1807, the same year the British Parliament banned the transport of slaves in the British Empire. He was buried in St. Mary Woolnoth, alongside his wife, Mary Catlett, who preceded him in death. Later, the two were moved to Olney, the site of his first parish.