John Newton, the author of the lyrics
to Amazing Grace, was born in 1725 in Wapping, London, United Kingdom.
Despite the powerful message of "Amazing Grace," Newton's
religious beliefs initially lacked conviction; his youth was marked
by religious confusion and a lack of moral self-control and discipline.
a brief time in the Royal Navy, Newton began his career in slave
trading. The turning point in Newton's spiritual life was a violent
storm that occurred one night while at sea. Moments after he left
the deck, the crewman who had taken his place was swept overboard.
Although he manned the vessel for the remainder of the tempest,
he later commented that, throughout the tumult, he realized his
helplessness and concluded that only the grace of God could save
him. Prodded by what he had read in Thomas à Kempis'
Imitation of Christ, Newton took the first step toward accepting
These incidents and
his 1750 marriage to Mary Catlett changed Newton significantly.
On his slave voyages, he encouraged the sailors under his charge
to pray. He also began to ensure that every member of his crew
treated their human cargo with gentleness and concern. Nevertheless,
it would be another 40 years until Newton openly challenged the
trafficking of slaves.
Some three years after his marriage, Newton suffered a stroke that
prevented him from returning to sea; in time, he interpreted this
as another step in his spiritual voyage. He assumed a post in the
Customs Office in the port of Liverpool and began to explore Christianity
more fully. As Newton attempted to experience all the various expressions
of Christianity, it became clear that he was being called to the
ministry. Since Newton lacked a university degree, he could not
be ordained through normal channels. However, the landlord of the
parish at Olney was so impressed with the letters Newton had written
about his conversion that he offered the church to Newton; he was
ordained in June 1764.
In Olney, the new
curate met the poet William Cowper, also a newly-born Christian.
Their friendship led to a spiritual collaboration that completed
the inspiration for "Amazing Grace," the
poem Newton most likely wrote in Kineton, Warwickshire
around Christmas 1772. The lyrics are based on his reflections
on an Old Testament text he was preparing to preach on, adding
his perspective about his own conversion while on his slave ship,
the Greyhound, in 1748.
Newton's lyrics have
become a favourite for Christians, largely because the hymn vividly
and briefly sums up the doctrine of divine grace. The lyrics are
based on 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, a prayer of King David in which
he marvels at God's choosing him and his house. Newton apparently
wrote this for use in a sermon he preached on this passage on New
Year's Day 1773, and for which he left his sermon notes, which
correspond to the flow of the lyrics. (He entitled the piece "Faith's
review and expectation.")
The song has also
become known as a favorite with supporters of freedom and human
rights, both Christian and non-Christian, in part because many
assume it to be Newton's testimony about his slave trading past.
hymn was quite popular on both sides in the American Civil War.