by Don Haines
John Newton Jr. was born on July 24, 1725, to a loving mother and an emotionally distant father. His father, John Sr., was a ship's captain who was gone from home a lot due to his occupation, but even when home paid little attention to his son.
"I believe my father loved me but took great pains not to show it," said John Jr. "I was always in fear of him."
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Fortunately, John's mother Elizabeth was a devout Christian (though a dissenter, meaning not a member of the Church of England) who saw her son as a future minister, perhaps because he was so quick to learn her teachings. Elizabeth was a well-educated young woman who spent long hours with John going over his books each day and found him a willing pupil with keen intelligence and an exceptional memory. He was an accomplished reader by age four, and his mother seemed obsessed with filling him with as much knowledge as possible. No doubt, Elizabeth's obsession was due to the fact that she was dying of consumption (tuberculosis), which she did just a couple of weeks before her son turned seven. John's life was about to change dramatically.
John's father returned from the sea in early 1733 to find himself a widower. He was of a personality that precluded a lot of mourning, so he soon took a second wife and they immediately began their own family essentially leaving John out. John was left to run the streets and was on the way to becoming a behavior problem when his father decided that boarding school was the proper place for his oldest child – thinking perhaps that a little discipline was in order.
English boarding schools were famous for their brutal schoolmasters. Indeed, whipping was endemic to British society. It's an oft stated phrase that "the English like their dogs better than their children." Obstreperous John was often the recipient of the cane wielded by the brutal headmaster. His only salvation was an instructor who recognized John's aptitude for Latin, a skill he would use later in life.
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John's father may not have realized he saved his son a lot of beatings when he showed up one day to take John out of the school and to sea with him. The two years at the boarding school constituted John's entire formal education.
Between 1736 and 1742 John made five trips to the Mediterranean with his father, though it didn't seem to improve their relationship. However, John did learn the duties of a sailor and also to curse like one. When he turned 15 his father obtained a position for him with a Spanish merchant in Alicante, a post with good possibilities. But by this time John was so steeped in bucking authority, it didn't work.
"I was too wicked and too foolish," he later said.
John returned to the streets and his father returned to the sea. It didn't take John long to realize after his father came home that his half brother William was now John Sr.'s favorite, which increased his anger. But his mother's influence could still be felt as he engrossed himself in books such as Benjamin Bennett's "The Christian Oratory."
Proverbs 22:6 – "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it."
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John continued to vacillate between two appetites, sensual sin and religious reading. For a two-year period he became an aesthetic until he decided it was a meaningless life.
"It tended to make me gloomy, unsociable and useless," he said.
Meanwhile, Captain John Newton himself was becoming rather gloomy over this son he would never understand. He decided John was unsuited for the sea and consequently unsuited for him, so he got him a land job with another friend, Liverpool merchant Joseph Manesty, who in later years would play an important role in John's life. Not so now. The job offer entailed going to Jamaica and learning how to manage a plantation, a position that could've made him a wealthy man.
John never got there. A few days before he was to sail he received an invitation from the Catlett family, relatives of his mother, to come for a visit. John went for a day, but when the door opened to reveal Mary Catlett who went by Polly, then 14 years old, John fell in love, instantaneously and completely. He stayed 10 days; the ship to Jamaica sailed without him.
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Captain John Newton was naturally livid when he heard what John had done. But when he calmed down he saw a silver lining. Maybe John was meant to be a seaman after all. A friend of the Captain's was about to sail to the Adriatic; he'd get a job for John as a mariner. John accepted the position, not thinking that this time he wouldn't be the son of the captain.
As a common sailor John learned to blaspheme and drink with the best of them, working on becoming a total apostate. When he returned to England he had one thing on his mind. Her name was Polly, and she was once again about to get him in trouble.
In 1744, John missed another job interview arranged by his father when he overstayed a visit at the Catlett residence, and once again the Captain became apoplectic. What happened next was probably poetic justice.
The British Navy of the 18th century did not draft men, not in so many words. They simply roamed the countryside looking for young men to "impress."
They would drag them to the ship, give them a quick physical and say, "Congratulations, you're now a member of the Royal Navy."
No amount of pleading by Captain John could get his son off the ship, so the Captain decided to let John stay in the Navy and he would use his contacts to see that he would not be treated too harshly.
John made a good record on the HMS Harwich and quickly became a favorite of the captain. When his ship docked in a place John knew was only a couple of hours from Polly, John decided to use his favored status by requesting a one-day leave. The requested leave was, of course, extended by John, and when he was brought back to the ship his favored status had disappeared. Only the junior officers' appeal to the captain spared him a flogging.
In April of 1745, John panicked when told that the Harwich, instead of a one-year sailing to the Mediterranean, would be going on a five-year trip to the East Indies. When he heard of a docking that would be only 30 miles from his father, he reasoned that perhaps Captain John could plead his case and get him off the Harwich. When Captain Carteret, skipper of the Harwich put John in charge of a longboat going ashore for supplies, he gave explicit instructions to not let any of the men desert. The men didn't … but John did.
It didn't take long for a detachment of marines to catch up to deserter John Newton. He was taken back to the Harwich, placed in irons and this time did not escape a flogging. John Newton had hit rock bottom and contemplated suicide while also fantasizing about murdering the captain.
He would later say many years later, "The hand of God restrained me."
This may be true, but one thing was for sure: God was not through with John Newton, because a miracle was about to occur.
On May 9, 1945, John Newton was rousted out of his hammock after oversleeping and ordered to report on deck. An exchange of personnel was taking place between the Harwich and a civilian ship. When John found out that the Harwich needed one more man to complete the transfer, he begged the ship's officers and Captain Carteret to make him the second man. Whether out of pity for a boy who was probably still the youngest sailor on the ship, or the fact that the captain had had his fill of John Newton, the captain assented. In one fell swoop, John was out of the Navy and out of a five-year cruise.
When he got to his new ship, he was delighted to find the civilian ship's captain was a friend of Captain John. He greeted the captain's son profusely. John was saved from a terrible fate. But John Newton, like always, would mess up.
One of the first things Newton would do on the civilian ship was write a derogatory song about Captain Penrose and his ship. He soon resumed his vile ways among the rest of the crew, who quickly tired of their new shipmate. He had a panic attack when Captain Penrose suddenly died and the second in command, whom Newton had been especially spiteful toward, became captain. John decided he had to get off the ship, and his opportunity came when a stop was made in a section of Africa known as the Guinea Coast. Here, Newton met up with Amos Clow, a slave trader whom Newton had known from another ship. John was so happy about getting off the ship and away from Josiah Blunt. The captain that he signed on as an employee of Clow glorified the slave trade to the extent that the young Newton could hardly wait to begin. John Newton had signed on with evil and was about to be repaid for some of his nasty behavior toward others. He would also find out what it was like to be a slave before he became a slaver.
Her name was Princess Peye, and she was the mistress of Amos Clow, who when John was down with fever and could not accompany Clow on a trip, descended on John Newton with unimagined hate and vituperation. He was starved, tortured and otherwise brutalized just as a slave in the hold of a slave ship. When Clow returned Newton approached him and told of his horrible treatment. It did no good; Clow believed his mistress, and after being told that John was stealing from him, continued the brutal treatment and in fact increased it.
The only thing that saved John Newton was another slaver nearby who asked that John be released to him. Why Clow accepted the offer cannot be known. Perhaps he and the princess had satisfied their sadistic yearnings, or perhaps they found a new slave to torture. At any rate, though still a slave, John's treatment improved, and though still a slave became like an employee who even made money off his fellow slaves.
In a way this was the most dangerous time for John Newton. After being treated so brutally, then having that brutality removed, he became grateful for the change. It was called among the slavers as "becoming black." The slave's mind would begin to play tricks on him and have him thinking he had a good life that he didn't want to change.
When John was going through his initial maltreatment at the hands of Princess Peye, he managed to smuggle out two letters to his father, who contacted Liverpool merchant Joseph Manesty to help search for his son. In February 1747, the ship Greyhound, commanded by Captain Swanwick, while cruising off the coast of Africa spotted a smoke signal, followed by a man in a canoe. Swanwick asked if the man knew anyone called John Newton. The man reported that John Newton was his partner. Soon, Swanwick was sitting across from the man he was looking for and was amazed that John Newton seemed indifferent about going home. Since Swanwick had orders from Manesty to bring Newton home, he resorted to lying – telling Newton that he had an inheritance of 400 pounds per year waiting for him and he would travel home in opulent style, just like the captain.
With the mention of 400 pounds, Polly's face came into view. Newton's twisted mind began to untangle – with that kind of money he could ask for Polly's hand in marriage. It wasn't money, his father or anyone else who brought Newton back to reality – it was the woman he loved. Soon, Newton was on a ship watching Africa disappear.
During the lengthy trip home, Newton began to read "The Imitation Of Christ," perhaps because it was one of the few books on board.
During his reading he began to be bothered by the thought, "What if these things be true?"
He quickly shut the book. Later on that night of March 9, 1748, he was awakened by many voices. The loudest cried out that the ship was sinking.
April 8, 1748, is considered by some as the time of John Newton's conversion to Christianity. That was the day the crippled and battered Greyhound limped into safe harbor after its harrowing experience. No doubt it was a time when Newton connected with the God of his beloved mother, recognizing that God was real, to be loved and respected rather than vilified. His "If this will not do, may the Lord have mercy on us" –after an attempt to shore up the battered ship – shocked even him. Always before a sneer would accompany any mention of God. Were his further mentions of Jesus Christ foxhole talk? Time would tell. But Newton himself was never sure as to whether it was the time he repented and surrendered.
It seems ironic that at the time Newton for the first time ever sincerely connected with Christ, Captain Swainback blamed him for the disaster, remembering the profane, cynical man that began the voyage.
Two contrasting events happened to John Newton in 1750. His father drowned, and he married Polly Catlett. He also gained employment – captain of a slave ship. Whether he was a bonafide Christian or not, it didn't conflict with his occupation of buying and selling human beings. It was a tawdry business that required dealing with tawdry people. Newton always practiced his daily Bible reading and prayer and kept up his self-education by reading Christian and non-Christian texts and held services for his crew, though some were incorrigible, much like their captain had previously been. To his credit he began to treat his human cargo with more kindness, as he now had a conscience –trying to practice the Christian religion can sometimes be a burden. He stayed true to Polly despite the many temptations and endured the kidding of other ship captains to whom licentious behavior was normal.
Whether Newton would've ever left the slave trade on his own cannot be known, but leave it he did, because his health broke. He began having seizures, and his physician advised him to seek another line of work – but what kind of work?
In 1755, Joseph Manesty – still a friend, even if John couldn't sail one of his ships –secured for John the position of "Surveyor of the Tides," a job that allowed him to be home with Polly, whose own health was deteriorating. Newton for awhile thought both of them had inherited consumption, not knowing that the disease was communicable, not inherited.
Life now allowed Newton to fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters. He was no longer involved in slavery and could now see what a horror it was, though it was somewhat ironic that some of those same brothers and sisters kept slaves (George Whitfield, for one, whose preaching overwhelmed Newton, who was now pursuing his faith with great intensity).
Newton was not only reading the Bible three hours per day, he was also reading and writing. Already an expert in Latin, he schooled himself in Hebrew and New Testament Greek. He wrote a pamphlet in 1756, "Thoughts on Religious Associations," and distributed it to every minister in Liverpool. He was a full-fledged Christian now, living and breathing the gospel, and he longed to be in the pulpit. Some of his friends knew which pulpit – the Church of England – and that there could be no ordination into the Church of England without a thorough knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.
It took Newton seven difficult years to be ordained in the Church of England. His first pastorate was in the small and poor community of Olney, whose people learned to love him not because of his preaching but because of his love for them.
The fame that he attained did not come from his pastoral duties but from his brilliant writing that has stood the test of time. His book, "An Authentic Narrative," published in 1764, was an immediate best-seller, running into five additions. It was acclaimed by many, especially England's Poet Laureate, William Wordsworth. His "Review of Ecclesiastical History" is recognized as an important work, though it was never finished.
But, of course, Newton was also known for his hymns that have also stood the test of time. He and his friend, William Cowper, collaborated on 348 hymns, with Newton getting credit for 281 and Cowper 67. His most popular, "Amazing Grace," was never popular in England, but is a spiritual national anthem in the U.S.
Like most pastors, no matter their fame, Newton wore out his welcome at Olney. He preached his final sermon there on Jan. 13, 1780, and accepted a pastorate in London. God was working because that's where he met William Wilberforce. The ex-slave ship captain was about to help in putting an end to slavery.
Beginning in 1785, John Newton began to speak out on the slave trade and became mentor to William Wilberforce, member of Parliament, who was leading the fight to abolish the slave trade. In January 1788, Newton published "Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade."
"I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders," he said.
On Dec. 15, 1790, his heart shuddered once more when his beloved wife, Polly, died of breast cancer.
John Newton performed perhaps the greatest service to his country when he testified before Parliament about the horrors of the slave trade. Before this, William Wilberforce had lost every vote, but the final vote wasn't even close.
John Newton preached his last sermon in October of 1806 and joined Polly in death on Dec. 21, 1807. As to just when he was saved, we cannot know, but we know he was. Besides, doesn't this apply to all of us – that even though we are saved we are not perfect, which means we are, like John Newton, a work in progress?