This week…
The Story Of John Newton

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

Profound personal change is something that has always fascinated me. I've been fortunate to work with clients who have been able to make big changes and it never ceases to amaze me what is possible at all levels - physical, emotional and spiritual.

I'm also fascinated by what Tony Robbins calls the "bumble bee" effect - you never quite know what impact you have as you move through life or what effect you might have as you pass by, just like a bee doesn’t set out to pollinate flowers; it’s goal is to collect nectar.

The other day I was listening to one of those free CDs that came with the newspaper when The Three Tenors started murdering the hymn Amazing Grace in their thick English/Italian accents.

By chance, earlier that week I’d been talking to a client who’d told me that he been learning Amazing Grace on the guitar.

I’d asked him whether he knew the story of the man who wrote it - a story of blood, slavery, passion and personal change. He didn’t, so I began to tell him…

The Story of John Newton

Born in 1725, the son of a sea captain John Newton had the sea in his blood but after his father died he was press ganged into service on a British man-of-war.

Finding this life intolerable, he deserted but was recaptured and publicly flogged before being demoted to the rank of common seaman. Several brutal years later he ended up as the captain of his own ship - a slave ship.

John Newton was a vile man, a murderer who traded in other human beings. This was a disgusting trade where people were herded like cattle and kept in appalling conditions for the voyage. Any weak or sick were thrown overboard during the voyage to keep the rest of the cargo healthy. It was said that you could smell the stink of a slave ship several miles downwind.

At the time, ships would sail in a great trade triangle, first taking beads, guns and other trinkets to Africa where they would exchange them for slaves. The second leg saw them sail to the Americas where the slaves were traded for sugar and molasses, which the ships would then carry back to England for the manufacture of rum.

This was dangerous work, as well as abhorrent, and it was during one particularly bad voyage home that John Newton experienced a major spiritual turning point.

He was not a religious man. Both abused and abuser, he had long since given up on any kind of faith but on May 10, 1748 just as his ship was about to sink, he cried out for help and experienced what he called "a great deliverance", believing that an Amazing Grace had begun to work for him.

From that moment on, things began to change.

He began to educate himself, to change the way he ran his business and eventually became an ordained minister in the village of Olney in Buckinghamshire where he wrote the hymn - Amazing Grace. The church had to be enlarged to hold the crowds that came to hear him.

It doesn’t end there though:

He was an extensive journal keeper and our historical knowledge of what went on in the slave trade is due in large part to his writings.

Towards the end of his life he moved to London where his teaching attracted huge crowds and influenced many including William Wilberforce who eventually led the campaign for the abolition of slavery.

He died at 82, by this time blind but still sure of that Amazing Grace. He wrote these words about himself for the plaque that marks his grave in London.

Once an infidel and libertine*
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.
He ministered,
Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,
And twenty-eight years in this Church.

Although we've done our best to airbrush him out of his own birthday celebrations, the story of the baby at Bethlehem still holds the potential for profound and far reaching personal change.

Why not take a moment, this year, to ponder what Christmas really means?

Have a great Christmas and a prosperous New Year!


lib-er-tine (noun)
somebody, usually a man, who indulges in pleasures that are considered immoral and who has sexual relationships with many people.

Encarta® World English Dictionary ©1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Read more about John Newton

A longer article with more detail

One of the many sites that tell the story

His autobiography written in 1868