LIFE CHANGING MOMENT
A near disaster at sea transformed one man’s life.
And that ended up changing both music history and spiritual history.
On May 10, 1748, the wooden frigate Greyhound – built to transport Africans to a life of slavery in the New World – was caught in a violent storm off the coast of Ireland. As wave after wave broke over the decks, its 23-year-old captain, John Newton, screamed into the wind, “God, have mercy!”
This was decidedly new behavior for Newton, who freely acknowledged he had no serious spiritual convictions.
When the storm began to die down, Newton concluded his prayers had been heard. He decided to devote his life to God.
Newton’s conscience, unfortunately, remained untroubled by his human cargo for nearly seven years. As his faith moved from his head to his heart, he resolved to leave the trade. Years later he would write, “I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
At first he was rejected for ordination in the Anglican Church because of his disgraceful past.
In 1764 he was finally granted permission to enter the ministry, in which he served for 43 years. Newton became one of England’s fiercest opponents of the slave trade. He died in 1807, the very year that slavery was formally abolished in the British Empire.
Today Newton is chiefly remembered as a hymn writer.
His most famous work was published in 1773, three years before the start of the American Revolution:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come.
Tis grace has kept me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
Newton’s original hymn included at least nine other verses, most of which are unknown to modern congregations.
It’s estimated that Amazing Grace has been recorded by more than a thousand artists, and is sung or performed at least 10 million times every year.
What would no doubt warm Newton’s heart the most, however, is that his simple hymn gradually became one of the most beloved expressions of the Good News in African-American churches.
The epitaph on his London tombstone reads:
John Newton, clerk,
once an infidel and libertine,
a servant of slaves in Africa,
was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
preserved, restored, pardoned,
and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.
— Authored by Glenn McDonald
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