John Newton was converted, on March 10, 1748.
Newton was in Africa as a godless young man whose father was Captain. John had been making a good living in Africa, but lived as in infidel (a “wretch” is how he described himself in his hymn). By chance he came upon a ship with news that his father was concerned for him. John was not inclined to return home, so the Captain lied about Newton having an inheritance to claim on his return.
John joined the voyage, which first had to fill its holds with ivory, gold, beeswax and special wood for making coloured dyes. The long voyage home involved crossing the Atlantic twice, once the ship was fully laden.
The ‘Greyhound‘ had been at sea for 20 months when a storm hit, while they were west of Ireland heading for Portsmouth, England. In the black of night on March 10, 1748 the heavy seas tore part of the ships deck away. The cry: “She’s sinking!” awakened 23 year-old John Newton. He dashed onto deck and was ordered to get a knife. He ran below and the next sailor to get on deck was swept away by a rope.
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John joined the other sailors “bailing with buckets” as waves crashed over them, until he was “unfit to do more”. The damage to the ship was such that a dozen men could not bail fast enough. The lightweight cargo (wood and beeswax) helped to keep the ship afloat. By morning the seas settled and “the captain placed him at the helm where he steered the ‘Greyhound’ through mountainous seas.” When the storm subsided the battered vessel drifted helplessly. That is when they recognised their next danger, the lack of food. Livestock and supplies had been swept away by the tempest and they barely had rations for more than a week or so. They even wondered if they would end up having to eat each other.
They drifted helplessly for four weeks, at the mercy of the tides and winds. Eventually they reached an island off the coast of Donegal. The very day they found land the seas turned stormy again and they knew they would not have survived if they did not have landfall.
But during that storm a spiritual experience had taken place in Newton’s heart. On that first day of the storm he cried out to his mother’s God … “and the Lord heard me”.
In The Works of John Newton (a 919 page volume containing his letters, hymns and sermons, etc., published in 1834, just 27 years after his death), we have his own testimony: “The 10th … is a day much to be remembered by me, and I have never suffered it to pass wholly unnoticed since the year 1748. On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters… About this time I began to know that there is a God who hears and answers prayer.”
Newton noted of the 12 of them that survived the ordeal at sea, “Not one of my fellow sufferers was affected as I was”. He was soundly converted, first by the terror of death piercing his fine notions that death was only a form of sleep, and then the month of desperation, on the edge of starvation and death, that consolidated his conviction that he must trust only in God.
The rest of Newton’s life is well known … his marriage to Mary Catlett … his job as a tide surveyor for the City of London … his ordination in the Church of England (1764), followed by a 16 year ministry at Olney. Here he befriended the mentally unstable William Cowper, and together they produced some of Christendom’s greatest hymns – 68 by Cowper and 280 by Newton. His most well known is ‘Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound‘.
In 1780 he commenced a 28 year ministry at St Mary Woolnoth in London, and there he was buried in 1807.
Hold it … that’s not the end of the story, for in 1893 the bodies of both himself and his wife were removed to the Olney Church yard and re-interred there!
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com