The Life and Spirituality of John Newton (1725-1807), is an incredible autobiography about the author the world’s most popular hymn, Amazing Grace. What stands out in Newton’s life is the tremendous amount of humiliation and shame he experienced in his early life which culminated in his conversion. These extreme experiences softened his character and molded his subsequent ministry to include extraordinary relationships with others who suffered from depression and mental illness.
John Newton was born July 24, 1725 in London to a devout mother and irreligious sea-faring father. His mother died when he was six years old, and after just two short years of formal education at a boarding school, John Newton took to sea with his father, making five voyages to the Mediterranean by age 18. By all accounts, Newton was an incorrigible and rebellious sailor. In his autobiography he reports that his sea-faring conversations would “mak[e] the gospel history…the constant subject of profane ridicule.” Disciplinary issues arose on ship after ship, on account of his various pranks and attempted desertions. These resulted in Newton being beaten, imprisoned, and degraded in rank. At age twenty, Newton reached his nadir, discharging from his ship to take a ‘manager-in-training’ position with a local slave trader, a position that ironically ended up looking more like slavery itself.
Newton took up residence at his new master’s home on Plantanes Island off the West African coast, but became violently sick upon arrival. During this illness, his patron neglected to feed him to the point that he nearly starved to death, and only survived by sneaking out at night to eat the roots of nearby trees.
At long last, Newton was able to escape from this servitude and return to England. On his voyage home, he narrowly escaped death in a sea-storm which triggered a newfound hope in Newton that “there is a God that hears and answers prayer.” This hope blossomed into a conversion, and in time, bore fruit in a teaching and preaching ministry.
Newton’s first pastorate was in rural Olney. He was a captivating preacher, and soon reported that 2,000 regularly attended his church on weekends, though the village of Olney itself had few more than 2,000 inhabitants. In Olney, Newton’s curacy was marked by an expansive youth ministry and frequent home visitations, often to parishioners in “various degrees of derangement.” In 1779, Newton relocated to an affluent central London parish, where in addition to preaching, he became a kind of ‘evangelical patriarch’, mentoring church leaders from several different denominations. Though much of his youth and small group work were abandoned in London, he remained dedicated to visit the ‘sick and the sorrowful.’
The Life and Spirituality of John Newton demonstrates how ‘great’ pastoring arises out of a receptivity to the ‘greatness’ of God in the midst of ‘great’ emotional duress. In many ways, the strength of the John Newton’s pastorate truly reflects the strength of God, as a broken person allows their weaknesses to be used to strengthen others.