Today is the birthday of John Newton, the abusive slaver-turned hymn writer best known for the beloved anthem 'Amazing Grace'.
'Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that sav'd a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.' So wrote Newton in the song penned in 1779, that remains a classic across many Church traditions today. Its sentiment was deeply autobiographical for Newton - it reflected his own dramatic tale of conversion.
Newton was not raised a Christian, and eventually grew up working in the Atlantic slave trade. He gained a reputation as a disobedient, profane and unkind man. In 1748 a tumultuous storm knocked Newton's boat off course, and he cried out to God for mercy. This was the 'beginning' of his conversion. Between 1754 and 1755 he ended his participation in the slave trade and studied theology instead, being ordained in the Church of England in 1764.
Newton's rejection of the abusive slave trade wasn't immediate, but he would eventually turn directly against his past, repenting of it and becoming an active voice in the abolition movement alongside William Wilberforce. He spoke honestly of the horrors of slavery, and lived to see it abolished in 1807.
He was a prolific hymn writer, his Olney Hymns, composed with poet William Cowper, was an influential work in the Church. Newton suffered from blindness later in life, but as his famed hymn described, in another sense he saw clearer than ever.
Here are seven quotes that capture his insight.
1. I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.
2. May the cheering contemplation of the glorious hope set before us – support and animate us to improve our short interval on earth, and fill us with a holy ambition of shining as lights in this evil world, to the praise and glory of His grace – who has called us out of darkness, into His glorious light!
3. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary – if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?
4. Whoever is truly humbled – will not be easily angry, nor harsh or critical of others. He will be compassionate and tender to the infirmities of his fellow-sinners, knowing that if there is a difference – it is grace alone which has made it! He knows that he has the seeds of every evil in his own heart. And under all trials and afflictions – he will look to the hand of the Lord, and lay his mouth in the dust, acknowledging that he suffers much less than his iniquities have deserved.
5. The midsummer sun shines but dim, The fields strive in vain to look gay; But when I am happy in Him, December's as pleasant as May.
6. How unspeakably wonderful to know that all our concerns are held in hands that bled for us.
7. Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; 'tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.