Jonathan Aitken,
John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace
(Crossway, 2007)

There can be no more "amazing" story than that of the writing of "Amazing Grace," considered by some to be America's national hymn. Yet it was written by an Englishman who never knew of its fame, but likely wouldn't have been surprised at its climb to popularity given the many other "divine coincidences" that led to its composition.

John Newton was born in England in 1725. Like the hippies of the 1960s (with which the author compares him) he became restless in his teens and, rejecting both the work ethic of his father and the religious teaching of his mother, fell into a lifestyle that led him not just to disgrace but to slavery and degradation. Neglecting to go to a job interview his father had arranged, he instead had a meeting with his girlfriend (later wife) and, wandering the roads at night, was seized and press-ganged into the Royal Navy. As a seaman he quickly adopted the worst of the common vices, drinking, swearing and, later, on slave ships, rape. Given the advantage of gaining the captain's favor and a promotion to midshipman, he almost immediately spoiled the prospect through gross insubordination, causing him to be flogged and demoted back to the ranks of the common sailors, who hated him for having been an officer. So badly was he treated that he begged the captain to trade him off to a merchant vessel in exchange for cargo; he wound up in Africa where, less than 20 years old, he resolved to go into business as a slave trader. His business partner's African mistress, however, took a dislike to him and, when left alone with him while he recovered from a fever, bound him in shackles and sadistically tormented and starved him. Had he not been helped by the black slaves around him he would have died. Once recovered, he allied himself with another slave merchant and rose through the ranks as an overseer in the West African slave market. Tricked by a friend of his father's into returning to England in the belief he had inherited a small fortune, he and his shipmates met with such a ferocious storm at sea that even the debauched and degraded Newton was forced to cry out to God, surprising himself with the fervour of his spoken imprecation. Miraculously, the situation soon improved and the ship made land at Ireland -- and Newton began a long journey towards a religious life.

What I have recounted is only a small part of the saga of Newton's youth, and had he not been both a diarist and an honest man with no hesitation about describing just how nasty a character he once had been, it would not be a credible story. Author Jonathan Aitken is himself a "redeemed" man who, like Chuck Colson, by whom he was inspired, had a modern "prison conversion experience" after being found guilty of dirty political dealings. Therefore his writing of the remarkable story of Newton is yet another piece of the puzzle, as the reader sees "amazing grace" attending on almost every aspect of this erudite and highly readable biography.

Once Newton began the reformation of his character, he continued to engage in the slave trade. However, while at sea he ate a self-imposed vegetarian diet and avoided alcohol so he wouldn't be easily tempted to fall into sin. In his last voyage as captain of a slave ship he boasted that not one of his Africans nor sailors died, a notable achievement that spoke of his good treatment of both groups. He then retired from seafaring to live with his wife, who seems to have suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, and pursue a position as a preacher. Since he had no education and no formal religious affiliation, his procurement of a post was as fraught with incredible last-minute interventions as his earlier adventures. After becoming the vicar at Olney, he began composing occasional hymns (he also wrote numerous sermons, articles and books). "Amazing Grace" was one of his compositions, written for a New Year's service. Originally composed with six verses, it was never well known in Britain. Indeed, Newton never mentioned it again. But it migrated to America where it lost the final three verses and acquired a brilliant fourth verse of unknown composition, and a tune, "New Britain," collected or composed by William Walker. After being mentioned in Uncle Tom's Cabin, its fame grew. The song spread through the religious revival movement of the 1880s and became the standard we know today, often played or sung at momentous occasions as well as at small personal ones, and in churches everywhere.

Aitken inserts a chapter -- "What Happened to Amazing Grace" -- in the midst of his biography of Newton, in acknowledgement of its unique iconic status and because the hymn so poignantly expressed the feelings of its author. Newton believed himself to have been a prince of sinners whose actions were nonetheless always observed and guided by an unseen Providence. Thus that same grace that "caused my heart to fear" could "my fears relieve" when the moment was right. The song, its current popular version, doesn't mention God in any way, yet expresses a deep spiritual conviction that appeals to people across sectarian boundaries.

Newton's later life would not be as interesting to American readers except as it later involved his abolitionist stance. In 1788 he wrote "Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade." Because he was not just an eyewitness but a participant, his words were highly influential.

His self-composed epitaph reads: "John Newton -- 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 and pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had labored to destroy."

review by
Barbara Bamberger Scott

15 September 2007

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