Born in 1725 in Wapping, London, Newton grew up at a time of religious turmoil. His father was ostensibly a Catholic but had Protestant sympathies while his mother was a devout independent Anglican.
Newton’s father was a shipping merchant and was away at sea for much of the time. His mother intended that the boy should join the clergy, but she died when he was aged just six.
His father then had other plans for his son and meant to install Newton as a slave master on a plantation in Jamaica, but he was first to serve his apprenticeship at sea.
But the young Newton was headstrong and disobedient and renounced his faith under the influence of a shipmate who introduced him to the works of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury which expressed hostility towards organised religion.
It was something he would come to regret as he wrote later: ‘Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.’
And fail him they did. While visiting his childhood sweetheart, Polly Catlett, Newton was captured by a Royal Navy press gang and forced to serve as a midshipman on board the HMS Harwich.
He tried to desert but was caught and sentenced to a flogging in which he was stripped to the waist, tied to a grating and received eight dozen lashes before the assembled crew. Newton was also reduced to the rank of seaman and disgraced and humiliated he contemplated murdering the captain and then committing suicide by throwing himself overboard.
But he recovered both physically and mentally, and while en route to India, Newton jumped ship and joined the Pegasus which was taking goods to Africa to trade for slaves.
It must have been quite some argument because it resulted in Newton being starved almost to death, imprisoned while at sea and chained like the slaves they carried. They left him with the slave dealer, Amos Clowe, and Newton was forced to work on a plantation in Sierra Leone near the Sherbro River.
He managed to write a letter to his father from his new ‘home’, explaining that the only reason he had left home was because of his love for Polly and dad intervened by sending the merchant ship Greyhound to rescue him.
It was on the journey home that Newton began his spiritual conversion. The Greyhound ran into a storm off the coast of Donegal and was badly holed. Newton woke to find the ship filling with water and cried out for God’s help. As if by a miracle, the floating cargo blocked the hole and the ship drifted to safety.
He began to take an interest in the Bible and other religious tracts, but his conversion was not yet complete. After returning to Liverpool, he joined the slave ship Brownlow as first mate, bound for the West Indies via the Guinea coast.
Newton fell sick during the voyage and while in the grip of fever he professed his full belief in Christ and asked God to take control of his destiny. He later said that this experience was his true conversion and that it was the first time he felt totally at peace with God.
That didn’t stop his slaving activities though. Newton captained three further voyages on the slaver Duke of Argyle and only gave up seafaring in 1754 after suffering a stroke. Even then he continued to invest in the slave trade.
In 1755 Newton became a tax collector in the Port of Liverpool and began to make a name for himself as an evangelical preacher. He first applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1757, but it was to be seven years before he was accepted.
In the meantime, he also applied to the Methodists, Independents and Presbyterians, and even wrote directly to the Bishops of Chester and Lincoln and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury.
His persistence finally paid off in 1764 when he was introduced to the Lord Dartmouth who in turn recommended Newton to the Bishop of Chester. In June that year, Newton became the curate at Olney in Buckinghamshire.
Newton spent sixteen years at Olney and was respected by Anglicans and Nonconformists alike. Such was the popularity of his sermons that the church built an additional gallery to accommodate the numbers who came to hear him speak.
In 1779 he became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, and in 1792 he was presented with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University.
But it wasn’t until 1788 that he confessed his earlier career when he published Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade in which he detailed the horrendous conditions on board the slave ships and apologised for his role in the trade:
… a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.
Copies were sent to every member of Parliament and it was so popular that it needed reprinting. Newton became a friend and ally of William Wilberforce and he lived to see the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.
Newton had married Polly Catlett in 1750 and after she died in 1790 he expressed his grief in Letters to a Wife published in 1793. Newton himself died in December 1807 and he was buried alongside Polly at St Mary Wolnoth, although both were re-interred at Olney in 1893.
But I began by mentioning his hymns. The poet William Cowper moved to Olney in 1767 and collaborated with Newton on the volume Olney Hymns published in 1779. Among them was Faith’s Review and Expectation which we know today by its opening phrase – Amazing Grace.