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Who is John Newton?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Saraq90 — On Oct 19, 2011

Amazing Grace is a simply lovely song. I never knew that John Newton wrote it or the story of John Newton's life. Now that I know Mr. Newton's story, this explains a lot and sheds so much light on the song.

I think it is horrible that he was a slave trader, but I think that it is beautiful that he turned his life around. Everyone is a sinner, so this just goes to show that and that anyone can be forgiven for anything.

Amazing Grace is a beautiful song and I am so happy we have such a universal Christian song to sing to praise God, thanks to John Newton. It shows God’s grace and love more that He forgave John Newton and gave him the words to create this song.

By cloudel — On Oct 19, 2011

I think that his time on the slave ship was meant to be, so that he could sing about forgiveness and God’s amazing grace. If he had lived a perfect and near sinless life, how could he have known what it was like to receive it?

The Bible says, “He who is forgiven much loves much.” So, John Newton’s spiritual struggle with his job made him that much more dedicated to God once he was free of it.

He appreciated God’s grace toward him that much more. Because of the path his life took, we have an amazing song that has been sung in churches all over the world for centuries and will likely continue to be sung for centuries more.

By Oceana — On Oct 18, 2011

It’s strange to me how I sing this song in church all the time, but I have never thought about its author. When I hear songs on the radio, I often think about what the writer must have been through in order to write that, but I don’t usually wonder about how old hymns were written.

I guess that’s because most of the writers have long been dead, and you don’t see music videos or photos of them anywhere. It makes me sad that I never looked into John Newton’s past. I’m glad I know about it now. It shines new light on the lyrics.

By John57 — On Oct 18, 2011

I have a CD that tells about the life of John Newton. I was very familiar with the song Amazing Grace, but had no idea of the story behind the man who wrote this song until I listened to this CD.

Although it only captured the main events, it was fascinating to learn of his history and how he was at first a merchant of slaves, and then became a slave himself.

I was listening to this CD on a long car trip, and as the events unfolded I found myself amazed at his story and how his journey ended.

Now when I sing the song Amazing Grace, it brings a whole new meaning to the words I am singing.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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