John Newton was born on the twenty fourth of July, in the year 1725. His mother was a pious, gentle woman, and it was her heart's desire to bring up her son "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." With this object in view she stored his memory at an early age with portions and chapters of Scripture, besides many hymns and poems. But she died when he was seven years old, and his father, who was a sea-captain in the Mediterranean trade, married again soon after her death.
He thus passed into different hands, and, though well-cared for in other respects, his Christian mother's instructions were not replaced. He was allowed to run with ill-bred and profane children, and very soon followed their pernicious ways. He was soon after sent to a boarding-school in Essex, where he remained until his tenth year, when his father took him with him to sea. This continued till 1742. "At this period," he writes, "my temper and conduct were exceeding various. At school, or soon after, I had little concern about religion, and easily received very ill impressions. But I was often disturbed with convictions. From a child I was fond of reading. Among other books Burnet's 'Christian Oratory' often came in my way; and though I understood but little of it, the course of life therein recommended appeared very desirable, and I was inclined to attempt it. I began to pray, to read the Scriptures, and to keep a sort of diary. I was, presently, religious in my own eyes; but, alas, this seeming goodness had no solid foundation, but passed away like a morning cloud, or an early dew! I was soon weary, gradually gave it up, and became worse than before; instead of prayer, I learned to curse and blaspheme, and was exceedingly wicked when from under my parents' view. All this was before I was twelve years old."
About this time he had a dangerous fall from a horse, and was nearly thrown upon the stakes of a newly-cut hedge-row. This alarmed him somewhat, and led him to break off for a time from many of his sinful practices, but he soon relapsed into his former condition of indifference. He was again aroused by a providential escape from death by drowning. He, with an intimate companion, had agreed to go on board a man-of-war, but he was detained, and the boat left without him. It was accidentally up set, and his companion was drowned with several others. He says, "I was invited to the funeral of my play-fellow, and was exceedingly affected to think that by a delay of a few minutes (which had much displeased and angered me, till I saw the event), my life had been preserved. However, this likewise was soon forgotten."
He writes as follows concerning his last attempt to establish for himself a righteousness after the flesh, before his final relapse into that state of infidelity and degradation which, after six years, ended in his genuine conversion to God.
He says: "My last reform was the most remarkable, both for degree and continuance. Of this period, or at least some part of it, I could use the apostle's words:'After the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.' I did everything that might be expected from a person entirely ignorant of God's righteousness, and desirous to establish his own. I spent the greatest part of every day in reading the Scriptures, meditation and prayer; I fasted often. I even abstained from all animal food for three months; I would hardly answer a question, for fear of speaking an idle word. I seemed to bemoan my former miscarriages very earnestly, sometimes with tears. In short, I became an ascetic, and endeavored, so far as my situation would permit, to renounce society, that I might avoid temptation. I continued in this serious mood (I cannot give it a higher title) for more than two years, without any considerable breaking off. But it was a poor religion; it left me in many respects under the power of sin, and, so far as it prevailed, only tended to make me gloomy, stupid, unsociable, and useless."
At this period he fell in with the second volume of Lord Shaftesbury's "Characteristics." No immediate effect, he says, was produced on his mind by their subtleties, but it acted like a slow poison, and prepared the way for all that followed.
He made a voyage to Venice in a vessel in charge of a friend of his father's, and the importunity and opportunity to sin proving all too strong, he again lapsed rapidly into a state of open sin and wickedness. He was alarmed for a time by a remarkable dream (which our want of space forbids relating), but the impression soon wore off, and then followed that long course of debasing wickedness, detailed by him in a series of letters called, "From the Service of Sin," etc. He makes mention of an infidel ship-mate at this time who became his intimate companion. He says of him, "He was a person of exceedingly good natural talents and much observation. He was the greatest master of what is called the free-thinking school I remember to have met with, and he knew how to insinuate his sentiments in the most plausible way. His zeal also was equal to his address; he could hardly have labored more in the cause if he had expected to gain heaven by it." This miserable man, he relates, was afterwards overtaken by a storm on a voyage from Lisbon, and, though the vessel and crew escaped, a great sea broke over the decks and swept him into eternity.
Newton was made a midshipman in the navy, but he was soon degraded by his misconduct, and publicly stripped and whipped. This enraged him so against the officer in command that he determined, if possible, to take his life. He says it was the hope of living to effect this that prevented him from taking his own life. His conscience became utterly seared, and he was given up to such moral blindness that he firmly believed that after death he should cease to be.
The ship in which he sailed was bound for India on a five years' voyage, but at his urgent request, he was exchanged at Madeira and put on board a vessel bound for Guinea. His services on board this ship ended with his engaging to work for a slave dealer on the west coast of Africa, and he was landed on the island of Benanoes, as he says, "with little more than the clothes upon my back, as if I had escaped shipwreck."
Here he was completely in the power of his employer, and for the most part of a year was degraded to the position of a slave. He says, speaking of this time, "I have seen frequent cause since to admire the mercy of the Lord in banishing me to those distant parts, and almost excluding me from human society, at a time when I was big with mischief, and, like one infected with a pestilence, was capable of spreading a taint wherever I went."
His master finally transferred him to another trader, with whom he fared somewhat better. He wrote his father frequently, begging him to find means to take him away. A ship sailing to this locality was accordingly instructed to bring him home, and on this vessel he lived as a passenger for about a year, while she cruised along the coast gathering a cargo of gold, ivory, dyewood, and beeswax. He says, "I had no business to employ my thoughts, but sometimes amused myself with mathematics. Excepting this, my whole life when awake was a course of most horrid impiety and profaneness."
About the beginning of January, 1748, they set sail for England. The voyage, as it was then made, was perhaps more than 7,000 miles. On account of the trade winds, they first sailed westward toward the coast of Brazil, then to the banks of Newfoundland, and thence directly to England. On the voyage home, Newton took up and commenced to read a copy of "Thomas á Kempis." As he read, the thought would force itself upon him, What if these things are true? He determined to banish these thoughts from his mind, so closed the book and joined in some vain conversation with his companions. He retired to his berth, but was startled out of his sleep by a violent sea which broke over the vessel and filled the cabin where he lay. He supposed that the ship was sinking and attempted to reach the deck. He was met on the ladder by the captain, who asked him to bring a knife. He returned for the knife, and the person who ascended in his place, was immediately washed overboard. A dreadful storm had overtaken them, and for four weeks their disabled vessel was tossed and drifted about at the mercy of the winds and waves. Death stared them constantly in the face, and Newton's free-thought failed and forsook him utterly. Like Jonah, he realized himself to be in the grip of God's mighty hand.
He then thought upon his many sins, professions and relapses, and great was his misery. He concluded at the first that his sins were too many and great to be forgiven, and many passages of Scripture, such as Prov. 1:24-31; Heb. 6:4-6; 2 Pet. 2:20, etc., returned to memory and nearly drove him to despair. He had on board a New Testament and a volume of Bishop Beveridge's sermons, one of which, on the Saviour's death, affected him much. He was particularly struck with the parable of the fig-tree, also the conversion of Paul, and the reception of the prodigal. Before their arrival in Ireland he had trusted his soul to Christ, whose precious blood had power to cleanse away his every sin. He had much yet to learn, but he stepped from that broken, water-logged ship a new creature in Christ Jesus—saved by the rich and sovereign grace of God.
Reader, this is the man who afterwards wrote for the Christian Church that tenderest of heart touching hymns, "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds." We see in this case the depths of degradation to which the most refined nature among men may descend. We learn, too, the longsuffering grace of our Saviour-God who is, adored be His name, "RICH IN MERCY."
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
Dear Name! the Rock on which we build!
Jesus, my Saviour, Shepherd, Friend!
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Tales of Grace, or The Conversion of Twelve Persons of Eminence by C. Knapp. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, [19--?].