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John Newton

by Christopher Knapp

On a marble tablet on a tomb in the churchyard of Olney, England, where it was removed from its original position in St. Mary Woolnoth Church, Lombard St., London, is this remarkable inscription:

"JOHN NEWTON, Clerk,
once an Infidel and Libertine,
a Servant of Slaves in Africa,
was, by the Rich Mercy of
our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
preserved, pardoned, and appointed to preach
the Faith he had long labored to destroy."

John NewtonThis inscription was written by Newton himself, the author of many of our sweetest hymns. "And I earnestly desire," he said, "that no other monument, and no inscription but to this import, may be attempted for me."

This was as it should be; the true praise of a true servant of the Lord "is not of men but of God." Newton's one wish was to call attention, not to himself but to "the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." Oh, that all believers might be more like him in this, and follow him in his humility as he followed Christ.

He was born in London, July 24, 1725. His father was a sea-faring man, and his mother, a godly woman, died while he was yet very young. The father married again within a year, and his second wife was very unlike the first. She did not wish to have the care of young Newton, so he was sent away to school. He did not learn much there, however, and associated with bad company. At eleven, he left school finally, and accompanied his father on his voyages for the four succeeding years.

But, bad though this young English lad, was, he could not entirely forget God, or his departed mother's prayers, and he made a profession three or four times before he was sixteen. He fasted and prayed, and read the Word of God; but he did not really repent and turn to Christ for salvation; so all his efforts to be good ended in dismal failure.

But God had His eye upon him; He allowed him to pass through many painful and humiliating experiences in order that he might see how bad he really was, and how much he had need of a Saviour such as Jesus is to all who call upon Him in truth.

He was carried off by a press-gang and put on board an English war-ship where the severe discipline might have done him good, but he profited little by this. When his father secured his release at the close of the war, the ship on which he was returning home encountered a terrible storm, and young Newton was greatly alarmed. He resolved that, if he ever reached shore again, he would lead a different life; but though the vessel arrived in port safely, Newton soon forgot his promises and good resolutions; like the dog of the Scripture parable, he "turned to his own vomit again." Had he put his trust entirely in the Lord, He would have made him one of His sheep—and a sheep, you know, is a clean animal; it turns away from the mire. When souls are really saved, they are taught of God to abhor sin, and by His grace are enabled to resist its temptations.

But God often allows those whom He is about to save to plunge into the deepest depths of sin, that they might fully know what is in their hearts, and ever after abhor themselves, and never more have confidence in the flesh. This will tend to keep them humble, and to cleave closely to the Lord for His keeping power and grace.

After this last failure to make himself better, the young man went from bad to worse, and ended up—how, and where do you think? Why, as a slave to a black man and his wife in Africa! I will not tell you all that he passed through there, but, as he later wrote to a friend, "Had you seen me, sir, go pensive and solitary, in the dead of night, to wash my one shirt upon the rocks, and afterward put it on wet that it might dry upon my back while I slept; and had you seen me so poor a figure that, when a ship's boat came to the island, shame often constrained me to hide myself in the woods from the sight of strangers (and my conduct, principles, and heart were still darker than my outward condition)—how little you would have imagined that such an one was reserved to be so peculiar an instance of the providential care and exuberant goodness of God!"

John Newton was indeed a marked example of the transforming power of the grace of God, as in a still greater measure with Saul of Tarsus, who afterwards called himself, "chief of sinners," who says, "For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting" (1 Tim. 1:16).

How he was at last saved on the voyage home, after being delivered from his miserable servitude in Africa, I cannot now tell you here; it is too long a story, and can be read in a volume of his letters called, "From Bondage to Liberty," or in books from almost any library. It is enough here to tell you that he was saved, not reformed merely, as so often before, but brought to a real, saving faith in Christ. This made an entirely new man of him, and he confessed his new-found Saviour boldly before the world.

What caused this great transformation, Newton has touchingly expressed in the following verses:

"I saw One hanging on a tree,
  In agonies and blood,
Who fixed His eyes of love on me,
  As near His cross I stood.

Oh, never, till my latest breath,
  Can I forget that look:
It seemed to charge me with His death.
  Though not a word He spoke.

Again He looked in love, which said,
  I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
  I died that thou may'st live."

Thus while His death my sin displays
  In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace,
  It seals my pardon too!

Having studied navigation, he obtained command of a ship; but God had called him to other service, and through the later years of his life he preached that faith which, as he says on the memorial tablet he "had long labored to destroy." He died like a "full shock of corn," at the ripe old age of 82.

May the grace that saved John Newton save you, dear reader, if still "a stranger to grace and to God." [For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9]

How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sound
by John Newton

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
  In a believer's ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
  And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,
  And calms the troubled breast;
'Tis manna to the hungry soul,
  And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which we build!
  Our Shield and Hiding-place!
Our never failing Treasury filled
  With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus, our Saviour, Shepherd, Friend!
  Thou Prophet, Priest and King!
Our Lord, our Life, our Way, our End!
  Accept the praise we bring.

The Lord Will Provide
by John Newton

Though troubles assail, and dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail, and foes all unite;
Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide,
The Scripture assures us the Lord will provide.

When Satan appears to stop up our path,
And fill us with fears, we triumph by faith;
He cannot take from us, though oft he has tried,
This heart-cheering promise, the Lord will provide.

No strength of our own, or goodness we claim;
Yet since we have known the Saviour's great name,
In this our strong tower for safety we hide;
The Lord is our power, the Lord will provide.

When life sinks apace, and death is in view,
This word of His grace shall comfort us through;
No dangers alarm us, with Christ on our side.
Even death cannot harm us; the Lord will provide.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Who Wrote Our Hymns by Christopher Knapp. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, [1925].

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