John Newton's life was an eventful one, full of desperate deeds and hairbreadth 'scapes.
His mother, a devout, godly woman, had from his infancy dedicated him to the ministry. But she "died in faith, not having received the promise."
Following his father, young Newton became a sailor. But he was reckless and vicious, and "being his own enemy he seemed determined that no one should be his friend."
He was forced into naval service on board the Harwich man-of-war, and flung virtue and religion to the winds.
His Narrative, from which we learn the facts of his history, depicts these years in the blackest colours. Perhaps the picture is overdrawn. Prodigals who have returned are always tempted to exaggerate the wickedness of their godless life. But when full allowance is made for such natural exaggeration, it is clear that his life was an abandoned and vicious one.
Yet he had conscience-stricken hours. In the uttermost parts of the sea, even there God's hand found and touched him. Though a scapegrace, he occasionally fasted and prayed and read his Bible. But these whims and superstitions did not last long. He turned to infidelity for a time. He delighted to talk virtue and to practice vice.
Not every infidel is a profligate by any means; but it is equally clear that profligates are glad to be infidels. The profligates of the world are a witness to Christianity, just because they do not like, cannot endure, its light cast upon their evil deeds.
He deserted, was caught, kept in irons, publicly whipped, and was degraded from the rank of midshipman. He was in consequence filled with bitter anger and despair.
By a mere accident — a midshipman having maliciously cut his hammock, and dropped him on the deck and injured him — he was exchanged on board a merchant vessel trading with the west coast of Africa.
It was here that he landed without anything but the clothes on his back, became practically a white slave among black ones, and, like the prodigal, in hunger was glad almost of the swine-husks for food.
Newton was an instance of the common experience that men who are morally shipwrecks are intellectually clever, the ruins of great citizens. He amused himself in his semi-slavery by studying mathematics. He mastered Euclid, drawing the figures of the first six books on the sand.
His father sent out money to ransom him; but the master of the vessel who received the commission was told that Newton had gone far inland, and so took no further trouble about him. But in reality the semi-slave was not a mile off. Following his custom, he was walking along a narrow neck of land on the beach. He saw and hailed a passing vessel; it stopped; he took a canoe and went out to it. It was the very vessel whose captain carried the ransom for Newton's emancipation.
On the homeward voyage he was treated kindly by the captain, and having little to do, took up Thomas à Kempis.
..Newton was affected by it. "What if these things be true?" A storm arose; the ship seemed sinking and book and storm united to arouse his conscience. The hurricane passed, but while he had been at the wheel, steering at midnight, a crisis in his heart came, when his life of sin passed before him, and he began to pray and think wistfully of Christ, Whom he used to deride. This was the "Great Deliverance."
But light did not come all at once. He desired to change. He renounced swearing and other evil habits. But it was little more than an attempt to mend himself.
He made several voyages as a captain; purchased slaves, and sold them again in the West Indies. Curious what contradictory principles can live in the same mind! His conscience did not trouble him on the slave question. We sometimes wonder if there is any question on which our consciences are as yet as unenlightened.
He by-and-bye met a captain who taught him the true way of faith in Christ, and he became a sincere child of God.
Through a sudden attack of illness he was compelled to leave the sea, and became a tide-surveyor or ship-inspector at Liverpool; met Whitefield, Wesley, Wilberforce; occupied spare time in studying classics; applied for Ordination, and was refused by the Archbishop of York because of some formal irregularity.
But the Bishop of London ordained him, and he became the minister of Olney Parish. Thus the Providence that had so strangely watched over his life brought Newton and Cowper together. Living close beside each other, they were scarcely twelve hours apart. They were like David and Jonathan in their friendship.
Newton, while a man of the deepest piety, was too stern and ultra-Calvinistic a companion for the sensitive Cowper, and sometimes unintentionally increased his mental troubles.
From the time of his "great deliverance" he kept a diary, of which the following passage is the opening: "I dedicate unto Thee, most blessed God, this clean, unsullied book, and at the same time renew my tender of a foul, blotted, corrupt heart."
Together they held a prayer-meeting every week, and Newton proposed that they should unitedly write a volume of hymns, partly "for the promotion and comfort of sincere Christians," and partly as a memorial of their intimacy. Many of them were written for use in these weekly prayer-meetings. The volume was not published for eight years after it was begun. It appeared under the name of Olney Hymns, the place giving the title to the book.
Of the Olney Hymns Cowper composed about sixty-eight, Newton about two hundred and eighty. Many of these are quite unsuitable for public praise. In proportion to the number that each wrote, Cowper has far more that are held dear by Christian hearts everywhere.
Newton wrote one well-known prose work— Cardiphonia.
When fifty-four he became Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, in Lombard Street, in the City of London. Here his ministry was much blessed; far more popular than in his former sphere in Buckinghamshire. Many flocked to Lombard Street to get their spiritual food from him. Here he died at the age of eighty-two. His epitaph was written by himself:
"JOHN NEWTON, Clerk,
Once an infidel and libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy,
Near 16 years at Olney, in Bucks
And years in this church."
He was certainly a brand plucked from the burning; his life a study in Providence; the change in his character a witness to the transforming power of grace; the hymns he has left among the most devout and simple, full of grace and truth.
Copied by Stephen Ross for WholesomeWords.org from Romance of Psalter and Hymnal: Authors and Composers by R.E. Welsh. London: Hodder and Stoughton; New York: Pott., 1889