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A Found Man

Updated on May 11, 2013

The old church hymn 'Amazing Grace' is the most recorded, and estimated to be the most sung, song ever. The U.S. Library of Congress alone has a collection of over 3,000 different versions of this one song - just about everybody knows the song 'Amazing Grace', and many know that the name of the author of the song was John Newton. But fewer know that 'Amazing Grace' is autobiographical . . . the 'lost man who was found', the 'blind man who can now see', the "wretch" of 'Amazing Grace' is John Newton. Here is a brief account of this most remarkable man.

John Newton (1725-1807) was born in London, the son of a sea captain father and a devout Christian mother. Newton's mother died when he was quite young and a few years later, at the age of 10, he went to sea with his father. John Newton grew-up on shipboard, and for 15 years he was the most obscene, vile, infidel seaman crew after crew had ever come across. His fame at this time of his life was that he was said to know more curse words than any man alive. Newton's life at sea was filled with many dangers, toils and snares . . . he was aboard ships that nearly sunk, pressed into naval service, and stripped to the waist and flogged,etc, until he was so rejected by a crew that they cast him off abandoning him at Sierra Leone on the West African coast.

There Newton became a slave, the property of an African princess, and was abused and mistreated along side other slaves, but also seemed to be the target of particular cruelty, often scratching the dirt for bits of food falling from his owner's table. Eventually a passing English ship rescued Newton and at age 23 he soon became the captain of his own ship, and a slave-trader himself. John Newton practiced that most despicable trade - his cargo was humanity, his commerce was souls, his profit was the pain of others . . . until God reached down to claim him as His own.

Newton would pass the time on-board ship reading, sometimes reading the religious books of others . . . he was not searching for God or truth, just keeping himself occupied. During this time Newton awoke one night as the ship was being tossed about by a violent storm and filling with water from a hole in the hull - Newton found himself calling out to God. Cargo shifted, the hole was stopped, and the ship drifted to safety. Newton returned to England and counted his abrupt turning to God as the consequence of his mother's prayers for him and Scripture reading to him in his young life. Suddenly Bible passages he didn't know he remembered came back to him, and he began to study the Bible and read other Christian works.

Newton gave-up his life at sea, married, and sought a position as pastor of a Christian congregation. For 15 years John Newton pastored the church at Olney, this is where he and his friend William Cowper penned the famous Olney hymns. Their simple structure, natural rhyming, and repetitive meter made them easy for Newton's common, uneducated congregation to sing and memorize, and they became very influential in the developmental course of hymn writing. 'Amazing Grace', as well as 'Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken', 'How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds' and many others were written during Newton's ministry at Olney.

Eventually John Newton became the minister at St Mary's Woolnoth in London, where he labored for the next 27 years until his death. It was during this time in his life that Newton's counsel became so highly esteemed that men from all over the world sought him out, even Native American tribal chiefs traveled to England to benefit from his insight and ask his advice. It was also durning this time that Newton encouraged William Wilberforce to enter politics and work to abolish the slave trade . . . John Newton, the old slave trader, was the soul and the spirit behind the end of the African slave trade.

By the time of his death, John Newton had come to be regarded as the 2nd father of The Church of England. In 1807, as John Newton lay dying in a small London room, the streets for blocks were strewn with straw so that the carriage wheels would not disturb his passing, businesses throughout London closed, and Parliament adjourned. After his death, it was discovered that he had a hole in his side that you could pass your hand through . . . he had once been rescued from falling overboard when the crew "hooked" him with the anchor and pulled him aboard - friends said he never complained about what doctors said must have given him constant pain. Newton penned his own epitaph for his gravestone; "John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy."

When Newton wrote . . .

"Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home."

. . . he was speaking from his own remarkable experiences. And when he wrote . . .

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."

. . . he was speaking from deep within his soul. John Newton was a lost man, found by God . . . he was a blind man given sight by God - and God put Newton to good use, He found him and gave him sight for a purpose, and we can benefit from God's use of the remarkable John Newton. The personal letters of John Newton remain the most beautiful, sound, useful, spiritual work I have ever read apart from Scripture itself. From his personal letters ~

The Vanity Of The World

What a poor, uncertain, dying world is this! What a wilderness in itself! How dark, how desolate, without the light of the Gospel and knowledge of Jesus! It does not appear so to us in a state of nature, because we are then in a state of enchantment, the magical lantern blinding us with a splendid delusion.

Thus in the desert's dreary waste,
By magic pow'r produc'd in haste,
As old romances say,
Castles and groves, and music sweet,
The senses of the trav'ller cheat,
And stop him in his way;
But while he gazes with surprise,
The charm dissolves, the vision dies;
'Twas but enchanted ground:
Thus, if the Lord our spirit touch,
The world, which promis'd us so much,
A wilderness is found.

It is a great mercy to be undeceived in time; and though our gay dreams are at an end, and we awake to everything that is disgustful and dismaying, yet we see a highway through the wilderness, a powerful guard, an infallible guide at hand to conduct us through; and we can discern, beyond the limits of the wilderness, a better land, where we shall be at rest and at home. What will the difficulties we met by the way then signify?

The remembrance of them will only remain to heighten our sense of the love, care, and power of our Saviour and leader. O how shall we then admire, adore, and praise him, when he shall condescend to unfold to us the beauty, propriety, and harmony of the whole train of his dispensations towards us, and give us a clear retrospect of all the way and all the turns of our pilgrimage!

In the meanwhile, the best method of adorning our profession, and of enjoying peace in our souls, is simply to trust him, and absolutely to commit ourselves and our all to his management. By casting our burdens upon him, our spirits become light and cheerful; we are freed from a thousand anxieties and inquietudes, which are wearisome to our minds, and which with respect to events, are needless for us, yea, useless.

But though it may be easy to speak of this trust, and it appears to our judgment perfectly right and reasonable, the actual attainment is a great thing; and especially so to trust the Lord, not by fits and starts, surrendering one day and retracting the next, but to abide by our surrender, and go habitually trusting through all the changes we meet, knowing that his love, purpose, and promise are unchangeable. Some little faintings perhaps none are freed from; but I believe a power of trusting the Lord in good measure at all times, and living quietly under the shadow of his wing, is what the promise warrants us to expect, if we seek it by diligent prayer; if not all at once, yet by a gradual increase. May it be your experience and mine!

~ John Newton


My very favorite quote is from John Newton. Think about this for a good while, it is brilliant in it's simplicity and depth, it is profound in it's truth ~

"Warm affections, without knowledge, can rise no higher than superstition; and that knowledge which does not influence the heart and affection, will only make a hypocrite"

~John Newton

photos: (ship at sea); & (Newton);

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