Amazing Grace: The Man Behind the Beloved Hymn

Amazing Grace: The Man Behind the Beloved Hymn

Posted by Rachel Broadway on Aug. 18, 2021

Amazing Grace. For centuries this hymn has been sung and continues to be the most well-known hymn throughout the world. What is it about this particular song that touches the hearts of so many? I believe it is because the words by John Newton are written with such raw self-examination, that even almost two hundred and fifty years later the emotions pulsing with each word proclaiming the power of being a new creature in Christ can be felt as if they were our own.

Honestly, I can say that up until a few years ago this song did not rank high on my list of hymns. It just seemed so outdated and could be sung so slowly. It wasn’t until I read the book Newton & Polly: A Novel of Amazing Grace by Jody Hedlund, which delved into the life of John Newton, that my opinion began to change. With each event that occurred in the book my jaw kept dropping. I’d put the book down to do research, certain the author had made up the account, only to find that it indeed did happen.

To say that John Newton lived an interesting life would be an understatement. His early life was a cycle of close calls with death, repentance, and then a backsliding into a lifestyle of slovenly drifting and debauchery. He narrowly escaped impalement upon a pole when he was thrown from his horse, avoided drowning at sea when he just missed a ship he was supposed to be on and watched from shore as his companions drowned upon the sinking ship, and once he was lost in a swamp on dark night and had resigned himself to death until the moon broke through the clouds to illuminate his way. Such events would scare him into reform for a time, until he would resume his worldly living.

Perhaps his only redeeming quality in his early life was his love for Mary Catlett, a friend from his youth. His heart had set itself firmly on hers, and his every goal was to return to her. The Catlett family had well-founded fears that he was not reliable or mature enough to be a good husband and provide for Mary.

His impetuous, rebellious, and profane actions caused him to find himself in a series of unfortunate events. He was press-ganged into the British Royal Navy, humiliated for desertion, and then traded to a slave trader ship where his behavior and actions were so shocking that he found himself imprisoned and in chains just like the slaves they carried. Upon being released he found himself enslaved once more in Sierra Leon and remained thus until his father arranged for him to be able to find safe passage home aboard the ship the Greyhound. Newton only agreed to come back to England because he wanted to return to Mary.

On their voyage home a treacherous storm hit the ship, battering it for several hours. Lives were lost. Once again, Newton missed death by a hairsbreadth. Finally, this brush with death let the seed of his need for God to take root. It was a slow transformation, for sadly he returned to the slave trade. As the years passed, he became convicted of the evils of the slavery. From slaver to abolitionist, he spent the rest of his life fighting for the abolishment of slavery in England. He once wrote in an essay, "I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me . . . that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders."

The personal growth Newton made after that stormy night aboard the Greyhound changed the trajectory of his life. He left the shipping business and eventually became an ordained minister. With trust, belief, and a desire to be a better man he was able to finally wed the love of his life, with her family’s blessing.

His and Mary’s love story was one for the ages, and through his letters to her over the years he would affirm again and again that a true love like theirs could only be had when God was at the center. How far he had come from the profane, ungodly man who lived only for himself!

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Was ever there a person as wretched as John Newton? Yes- you and I. Every single one of us. This is what endears Amazing Grace to so many. The realization of the need for God, the power of His transforming love for every one of us wretches, and the joyful hope that no matter how far gone we are, God is there waiting for us to come to Him. As Romans 3:23 states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Every single one of us needs that amazing grace and salvation that is offered to us. “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ'd!

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

The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

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

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.

-John Newton