Hymn Story of the Week: Amazing Grace

Well, it is that time of the week again. I love good hymns, and its time for another hymn story. First of all, I’d like to apologize for my lack of posts this past Wednesday and Friday. I have no good excuse, and I offer none. I will apply myself not to let my faithful readers (if faithful readers I have) down again.

Secondly, Monday is the day where I post a hymn story. I had planned to tell the story of the hymn “Be Still My Soul,” which is one my favourite hymns. But another hymn has come to mind. Allow me to introduce it.

Last Monday (August 24) was the 250th birthday of William Wilberforce, the great British Christian and abolitionist. During the early days of his conversion, he struggled to decide whether to remain in Parliament (to which he had been elected in 1780 at the age of 21), or to withdraw from public life.

During this struggle, he visited the minister John Newton for advice. Newton advised him to remain in Parliament, and to serve God there. Wilberforce became one of the prime movers of the abolition of the slave trade and eventually of slavery itself in the British Empire.

This preacher, John Newton, who had such an influence in the life of Wilberforce, was once a slave trader himself. Knowing his story has helped me to better appreciate his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace.

John Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, London. His father was a shipmaster, and his mother was a godly woman. However, his mother died when Newton was six years old, and his father’s second wife had no interest in spiritual things.

At the age of 18, Newton was pressed into service on board the Harwich against his will. He says of himself, “I was capable of anything; I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor (so far as I remember) the least sensibility of conscience.” His only restraint was his love for Mary Catlett, a girl he fell in love with at the age of 17, and whom he married at the end of his miserable traveling years, seven years later.

When he was 20, after being discharged from another ship, the Pegasus, Newton accompanied Amos Clowe to Sierra Leone, Africa, where he assisted him in business. However, misfortune befell him, and for about a year and a half he became a slave to the slaves there, under the thrall of Clowe’s wife, the African Princess Peye, who treated him abusively.

Miraculously, a ship landed on his island at the end of this horrible period, which “just happened to be the ship with a captain who know Newton's father and managed to free him from his bondage” (Desiring God). He sailed with the ship for about a year, no doubt still his wicked and blasphemous self. However, God was seeking him.
God found him during a storm on March 21, 1748. The ship was in danger of sinking, and Newton cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us.” He had not cried out for mercy for years, and when the storm had passed, Newton began to seek God. He became transformed after this, although he marked his true conversion as happening at a later date.

In 1805, John Newton wrote in his diary, “March 21, 1805. Not well able to write. But I endeavor to observe the return of this day with Humiliation, Prayer and Praise.” Newton was still overwhelmed by the amazing grace that had saved such a wretch!

At the age of 82, John Newton said this: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” Newton’s life is a story of the great grace of God. Should not we, great sinners who have been redeemed by God’s amazing grace, also praise Him?

John Newton died in 1807, at the age of 82. His epitaph, written by himself, reads like this:

Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A Servant of Slaves in Africa,
by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long laboured to destroy,
Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks;
And [28] years in this church.


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.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!

Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis'd good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.

When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun.




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