John Newton Saved At Sea

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:

Determined to be Slaves

While we celebrate the abolition of slavery and the work of such men as William Wilberforce we may fail to recognise the level of personal slavery that millions of people live in.

Michael Apted’s recent movie, Amazing Grace, starring Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce and Albert Finney as John Newton, celebrates one significant step in removing the scourge of slavery from the western world. Sadly, as the movie reveals, it was not any high moral impetus that won the day but a trick of legal restriction on certain types of shipping. Economic complications were the agency used to stop the English engagement in slavery.

But slaves were still traded by other nations and unscrupulous operators masked their slave trade by implied agreement from those they took captive. Thus Pacific Islanders were taken to Australia’s Queensland cane farms long after slavery was ‘removed’.

Personal Slavery

The point of this posting, however, is not the evils of enslavement of others against their will, but the personal choice to be slaves, by the personal will of those who would be slaves.

It’s an absurd proposition, isn’t it? Why would free people seek out the chance to be slaves? Surely no-one does such things.

Personal Slavery is Endemic

Personal slavery is not only something that happens, it is endemic. It is almost an addiction: a madness which captures the imagination of generations, drawing them into voluntary slavery.

For all I know YOU may be one of those who is drawn into slavery.

What is worse than the initial slavery itself is that people who have been slaves and then been set free are in danger of willingly submitting to slavery all over again.

The Apostle Paul actually wrote about the issue in his famous letter to the church in Galatia. He tells the people to stand firm in their newfound freedom and not to be enslaved again.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” Galatians 5:1

Drawn to Slavery

Believe it or not free people are drawn back to slavery. Whether you put that down to foolishness or some kind of addiction to slavery, it is a factor that we all need to recognise. It is a reality that impacts society. People are drawn into slavery.

Paul spoke of this slavery to things in another letter, this time to the believers in Colosse. He challenged their willingness to come under rules and regulations which free people do not need to be under.

“So, if you are dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?” Colossians 2:20-22

Paul knew that Christians are not slaves to rules and regulations like others in the world and he wanted the church in Colosse to be free from the imposition of such rules upon them.

That church in Colosse, which was full of free people, was in danger of throwing away some of its freedom and coming into slavery to rules and regulations.

Bullied into Slavery

Imagine the scenario where some people wish to bring others under their rules and regulations. A free person resists, but then finds that others are rebuking them and pressuring them to be like everyone else.

It’s just that easy to make slavery into a popular idea.

That is what was happening to the church in Colosse.

God Sets People Free

Jeremiah the prophet struggled to show God’s people that God had set them free from slavery and that they had gone straight back into sin which enslaved them.

“For of old time I have broken your yoke (of slavery), and burst your chains; and you said, I will not transgress; when upon every high hill and under every green tree you wander, playing the harlot (being unfaithful to God).” Jeremiah 2:20

The Israelites worshipped idols on every elevated place and under the groves of trees, committing spiritual unfaithfulness, even though God had broken the yoke of Egyptian slavery off their lives and broken the chains of other things which bound them.

These people were drawn to slavery and were determined to be slaves, despite the fact that they had once been slaves and then been set free.

Iniquity is the Issue

The problem for the Children of Israel is the same problem for us all. It is iniquity which draws us into slavery. See what Jeremiah added to his warning just a few verses later.

“For though you wash yourself with nitre, and use much soap, yet your iniquity is marked before me, says the Lord GOD.” Jeremiah 2:22

Cleaning up your image doesn’t change the condition of your heart. Iniquity in your heart will enslave you and bring you back into bondage. You will have a heart to be a slave unless you deal with the sin that is within you.

So, are you a free man, or a slave? Worse still, are you one of those who heads back into slavery once you have been set free?

Catholic Church’s New Sins

The Vatican has now defined an extended list of sins – updating a tradition that is 1500 years old. And, may I say, it signals a crumbling of the Catholic Church.

That’s a dramatic suggestion and it’s not intended to be anything but an observation. Consider what is happening here and make your own assessment.

A recent Milan Catholic University survey of Italian Catholics, arguably as devout a constituency as could be found on the planet, showed a serious change in attitude toward perennial Catholic practice. Attendance at confession is no longer practiced by 60% of Italian Catholics.

The Catholic University showed that 30 percent of Italian Catholics believed that there was no need for a priest to be God’s intermediary and 20 percent felt uncomfortable talking about their sins to another person.

These findings prompted Pope Benedict XVI to express concern over rising secularization. He told a seminar group that hedonism and consumerism had even invaded “the bosom of the Church itself, deeply undermining the Christian faith from within, and undermining the lifestyle and daily behaviour of believers”.

In apparent response to this trend Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti of the Vatican Apostolic Penitentiary told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that priests must take account of “new sins which have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalisation”.

“You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbour’s wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos,” he said.

Now the Vatican says it is time to modernize the list of sins to fit a global world.

Commendable as it may be to draw attention to all forms of wrong, including those that have previously been sidelined, the TREND of what is happening is more significant than the detail.

Here we have one of the most powerful forces in Christendom acting as a handmaiden to social pressures beyond its control. In previous generations this would never be so. In centuries past the Catholic Church set the trend. Indeed Christianity has imposed itself on cultures, nations, families and individuals with profound impact again and again since it was born 2,000 years ago. Christianity has never had to be a handmaiden to society, but rather called society to accept its truths, receive its grace, comprehend its worldview and cooperate with its agenda.

So, I find this latest invention alarming. It signals that the Catholic Church has somehow embraced a position of powerlessness. It almost ascribes the greatest social prominence to the “forces of globalism”, probably including such corporations as McDonalds and Microsoft.

At the same time however, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is still as powerful as ever. The truth of Christianity owes nothing to global forces, but stands in their face and in their way, not needing to step aside to accommodate human culture. The Spirit of God does not need a new sales-pitch or a new message. The old rugged cross, that amazing grace and the church triumphant proceed full-force in this new millennium without apology and without need to re-invent themselves. Praise God for a Saviour who does not change, for grace that is always sufficient and for a hope that is eternal.

The Catholic Church may be signaling by this significant step that it has lost confidence in the gospel which spawned it. It will be interesting to observe, over the next decade or so, if similar expressions of accommodation emerge from the papal corridors.

Believers the world over, be they in traditional churches or underground gatherings, in cathedrals or jungle huts, need not be tempted to uncertainly or doubts about the relevance of their long-held faith. The rock cut out of the mountain is still growing into a mountain that fills the earth – and that is the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sources: Reuters – Vatican lists “new sins,” including pollution / Times Online – Seven new deadly sins: are you guilty? / CNN – Vatican Updates Sins. March 10, 2008