Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant's house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O Lord God! (1 Chronicles 17:16–17)
In the eighteenth century there lived a reprobate sailor. In fact, there were many reprobate sailors, but one in particular should command our attention. He had broken the hearts of his godly parents, as their dreams of their son entering the ministry were washed away by so much sea water. Even amongst sailors his actions were considered too much, and at one stage he was demoted, put in irons and publicly flogged. After that he found work in the slave trade - he could go no lower.
During his voyages he came across a copy of Thomas à Kempis’s classic “The Imitation of Christ” which got him thinking about spiritual matters, even as he was now captaining a slave ship. Then, in 1748, a storm broke which flooded the boat and death stared the captain in the face. He finally took the decision, turned to Christ and quit the slave trade.
Back on dry land he was influenced by John Wesley and George Whitfield, and finally entered the ministry as curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire. Hymns and letters flowed from his pen: How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, Glorious Things of Thee are Spoke, Amazing Grace and many, many more. After sixteen years, he took the post of Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London where he remained until his death, preaching into his eighties.
He was buried back in Olney, and his tomb carried the epitaph which he had himself written:
JOHN NEWTON. Clerk.
Once an infidel and libertine
a servant of slaves in Africa was
by the rich mercy of our
LORD and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST
preserved, restored, pardoned
and appointed to preach the faith he
had long laboured to destroy. Near 16 years as Curate of this parish
and 28 years as Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth.
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 hath 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.