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John Newton, 1725-1807

by Norman Mable

John NewtonHow sweet the Name of Jesus sounds.
Glorious things of Thee are spoken.

A one-time atheist and captain of a slave-ship became the author of one of our dearest hymns, a hymn greatly beloved throughout Christendom: How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds.

John Newton was the son of a sailor, and, on his own confession, spent the life of a reckless and profligate man. At one time he was actively engaged in the African slave trade.

He admitted committing every kind of wickedness known, and yet his mother was a devout Christian and hoped some day her only child would enter the ministry. His father, too, was a godly man. But their son, misled by one of his atheistic associates, disregarded the lessons taught him by his parents and grew into an abandoned and godless sailor. So atrocious became his behaviour, that, as a deserter from the navy, he was degraded from his rank of midshipman, put in irons, brought back to Plymouth as a felon and publicly whipped. Then followed his shameful occupation under a slave-dealer.

While so engaged he happened to come upon a copy of Stanhope's 'Thomas à Kempis,' which set him thinking seriously of spiritual matters. So much so that during the next six years, although then in command of a slave-ship, he continued to meditate upon the things that matter most. Then in 1748 came a terrible experience at sea, when, on a water-logged vessel during a great storm, he was brought face to face with death. This had the effect of deepening his convictions and bringing him to a decision.

He gave up the slave business and, returning to England, managed to obtain the post of tide surveyor at Liverpool. During his residence in that city he came under the influence of Wesley and Whitefield ... and he decided to take Holy Orders. After the necessary preparation he was ordained as curate of Olney, a small village in Buckinghamshire, where for sixteen years he worked zealously. Then he became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, in the City of London, where eventually he was buried.

While at Olney, Newton met the poet William Cowper, and a close friendship resulted. Together they compiled the collection now known as the famous Olney Hymns. Every Tuesday the Rev. John Newton and his people met for a prayer meeting, and the influence of this gathering has permeated the whole Christian Church; for a new hymn was written by Mr. Newton for each meeting, and so were preserved some of our most lovely lyrics, including Glorious things of Thee are spoken, considered by many to be the finest hymn he wrote.

Newton continued to preach until he was over eighty. So poor, however, was his sight during the latter years, that a servant stood behind him in the pulpit, and with a pointer traced out the lines on the manuscript of his sermon. On one occasion Mr. Newton spoke the words, 'Jesus Christ is precious,' and then repeated them. His servant, thinking he was getting confused, whispered, 'Go on, go on; you said that before'. Newton, looking round, replied loudly, 'John, I said that twice, and I'm going to say it again;' and then with redoubled force he thundered out: 'Jesus Christ is precious!'

He was greatly loved for his kindness and sympathy, and Lecky, the historian, called him 'one of the purest and most unselfish of saints'.

Newton, who was born in 1725 and died in 1807, wrote his own epitaph; here it is:

Once an infidel and libertine;
A servant of slaves in Africa:
Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy.
Near sixteen years at Olney in Bucks,
And twenty-seven years in this Church.

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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