The famous 'Amazing Grace' is a song about salvation. It was written by a former slave trader, many decades after he had left slave trading and seafaring behind and had become a minister of God.   

John Newton (1725-1807) first worked as a slave buyer in Africa and later moved on to a position of captain on slave ships. He continued to make his living in the slave trade after becoming a Christian at the age of 23 in 1748.

A violent storm at sea brought about his commitment to Christianity, but it was escaping with his own life that inspired him to get religion, not guilt over enslaving others. Although this event is often pointed to as "the" conversion, it really was only the first of many such pacts with the Almighty struck by Newton, each one brought about by his close shaves with death.

Newton quit the sea and the slave trade in 1754 or 1755. He did not free any of his merchandise on that 1748 trip, or on any others. Though he might have become a Christian, he did not yet allow it to interfere with his making a living.

In 1754 or 1755, he became a Tides Surveyor in Liverpool (a form of Customs Officer charged with searching for contraband and paid with half the swag taken from others). It was at this point Newton first began to express an interest in the ministry, but at the time was unable to decide between the Methodist and Anglican faiths. He was ultimately ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1764.

Newton most likely composed 'Amazing Grace' in 1772, although there is no clear agreement on the date. According to one biographer, the hymn was penned along with a great many others during an informal hymn-writing competition he was having with William Cowper, another noted hymn writer. If so, that casts doubt upon this particular composition's being solely an invigorating outpouring of wonder over the Lord's mercy — there are, after all, only so many themes that can be expounded upon in a hymn, and personal salvation is one of them.

Newton began to express regrets about his part in the slave trade only in 1780, thirty-two years after his conversion, and eight years after he wrote 'Amazing Grace.' In 1785 he began to fight against slavery by speaking out against it, and he continued to do so until his death in 1807.

This is a true story of a former slave trader  who did compose one of the most moving hymns of our times. But Newton's storm-driven adoption of Christianity didn't change him all that much immediately. He continued to make his living from the slave trade for many years afterwards and only left the trade when his wife insisted upon their living a settled life in England.

Newton did eventually grow into his conversion, so that by the end of his days he actually was the godly man, one would expect to have penned 'Amazing Grace.' But it was a slow process made over the passage of decades, not something that happened with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning. We can say that Newton's  writing of the 'Amazing Grace' is a manifestation of God's unending patience with him.

The Newton's story gives us all hope that even the greatest of sinners can ultimately and meaningfully repent, and even the most half-hearted of conversions can over time work its magic.

The epitaph on John Newton's monument, written by Newton himself, is very characteristic: “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 laboured to destroy.”

By Tim Pedrosa


Amazing Grace
1
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.

2
 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

3
 Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
'Tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

4
 And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

5
 When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun.

If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 

Tim