John Newton was born on July 24, 1725, in London. His father, also named John, was a ship’s captain, and his mother’s name was Elizabeth. Sadly, she died when he was only seven years old. At that point, the young John Newton seems to have gone adrift. His father would remarry, but it doesn’t seem that Newton connected with either his father or his stepmother, and at age eleven, he went to sea. Many years later, Newton published his memoirs under the title An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton. He started this book with a reference to Israel and the wilderness. From Deuteronomy 8:2, he quotes, “Thou shalt remember all the way, by which the Lord thy God led thee through this wilderness.” From age eleven on, John Newton’s wilderness was the sea.
Newton saw his life, in his own words, as “a remarkable display of God’s sovereign, efficacious grace.” God’s grace was amazingly displayed in his life, because Newton was a great sinner. In his memoirs, he recalls that his mother was pious and that he might have picked up a few things from her, but he only had faint memories of her. He was educated as a young man. At ten years old, he was already reading Virgil in Latin, but he wasn’t content, so he went to sea.
His first voyage was on one of his father’s ships. Newton would speak of his father as having “an air of distance,” and that troubled the young Newton. He made several voyages through his teenage years, and in between his voyages, he would spend time in the English countryside. On one of his trips into Kent, he met Mary Catlett. He would call her Polly. From the moment he saw her, he knew that he wanted to marry her. That would be a few years off. In the meantime, continued to be a sailor. For a time, he was in the Navy but was essentially dismissed because of his difficult nature. He was pressed into service as a merchant marine. By his own account, he lived an immoral life as a sailor. He would say that he had the “ambition of Caesar” to rank in wickedness.
Then came March 21, 1748. Newton was aboard the ship the Greyhound, and by then he was a seasoned sailor, but a terrible storm whipped up at sea. It racked the ship. Newton was asleep in his cabin, and a large burst of water came right through the wall of his room and woke him up. He spent the whole night furiously pumping water off the ship’s deck trying to keep the ship from going under. Some of his fellow sailors lost their lives, but he managed to survive. In the midst of the storm, he cried out a very simple prayer: “Lord, have mercy.” He was struck by his own words. He had little to no time for God, and he cared nothing for mercy, but as Newton would later say in one of his hymns, “Sovereign grace has power alone to subdue a heart of stone; and the moment grace is felt, then the hardest heart will melt.”
Speaking of changes in Newton’s life, he was married on February 12, 1750. He did marry Polly after all. From this point, Newton led three more voyages to sea. One thing that is difficult for us to grasp is that, after his conversion, Newton was a slave trader. He would later deeply regret this. In 1754, he had a seizure and needed to leave the sea. He became a pastor. He’s most known not for his sermons but for his hymns, the most famous being, of course, “Amazing Grace.”