Today is the 189th birthday of John Newton, a man whose life, even in outline, reads like fiction.
Born on this day in 1725 into a family of merchants, John Newton went to sea with his father at the age of 11, was later press-ganged into the Royal Navy, attempted to desert and was punished by a flogging of eight dozen lashes, after which he understandably contemplated killing the captain and then himself. But, amazingly, he recovered.
Later he transferred to a slaving ship, on which he made such a nuisance of himself that he was dumped in West Africa in the care of a slave dealer. The dealer duly sold him into the service of an African princess, who mistreated her slaves on an equal-opportunities basis.
Eventually rescued by a friend of his father’s, he returned home, experiencing a spiritual conversion en route, married his childhood sweetheart and became an Evangelical Christian, while continuing for some years to be profitably active in the slave trade – though he later became a fervent abolitionist.
While serving as curate at Olney in Buckinghamshire, his path crossed that of the troubled poet William Cowper, with whom he wrote the Olney Hymns, among which are Newton’s Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and, best of all, the great hymn for which he is best remembered today – Amazing Grace.
Opinions differ as to whether the encounter with Newton’s passionate Evangelicalism improved or worsened Cowper’s fragile mental health, but it was certainly for some time a warm and sustaining friendship. Newton had a generous approach to his ministry, his mission being, as he saw it, ‘to break a hard heart and heal a broken heart’. His door was open to all and he was popular figure, ever ready to help where he could. He once said:
I see in this world two heaps of human happiness and misery; now if I can take but the smallest bit from one heap and add to the other, I carry a point. If, as I go home, a child has dropped a half-penny, and if by giving it another I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this.
That sounds to me like a pretty good mission statement for a priest – or anyone.