Amazing Grace: John Newton

The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives
January 21 through May 22, 2011
Audio: 

Amazing Grace: John Newton (1725–1807). Once a slave trafficker, John Newton felt called to the ministry and wrote the most enduring hymn of all time—"Amazing Grace." He kept a copious diary of his spiritual progress.

About the Diary

Since it was first published in 1779, "Amazing Grace" has become a global anthem of deliverance, and the life of its author, John Newton, a paradigm of spiritual awakening. Arlo Guthrie closed his set at the 1969 Woodstock festival with the hymn, echoing the words sung by countless protestors in the civil rights movement, and has continued to perform it frequently. As he introduces the song, Guthrie often tells a story about its author, saying that Newton was a slave trafficker who experienced an epiphany in the middle of the ocean, turned his boat around, and brought everyone back home, memorializing his enlightenment in song. But Guthrie's version of the story, while compelling, is not accurate. While it is true that Newton played an active role in the slave trade, underwent a dramatic spiritual conversion, and wrote the lyrics to the famous hymn, his personal story—extraordinary as it is—did not unfold quite so neatly.

Newton pledged his life to God after surviving a maritime disaster in 1749, but for several years thereafter he commanded ships conveying enslaved Africans. He retired only when his health forced him to remain on solid ground, settling in Liverpool with his wife. There he began a new diary in September 1756, noting that "it is a very useful method to take some account of every day." Over the next sixteen years, Newton filled every inch of over four hundred folio pages with near-daily reports of this transformative period in his life but never made reference to his former occupation. Many years later he was convinced of the heinousness of slavery and raised his voice in opposition. He lived to see the British slave trade outlawed—just months before his death in 1807.

Newton's sense that God's boundless grace had saved him from a life of metaphoric blindness pervades the diary. He prayed in secret, read scripture, taught himself Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac, and worshipped assiduously but always fell short in his own estimation, lamenting—in words that echo his famous hymn—"what a wretch I am." Newton often read over past diary entries to chart his spiritual progress, and an early reader of his manuscript added a handwritten index that cataloged some of his repeat offenses, such as "abstraction," "sleeping too long" (one of Newton's worst vices), and "talking too much."

When the controversial preacher John Wesley came to town, Newton was energized by his example and began to feel that he, too, might be called to the ministry. As he awaited a clear calling, Newton had a choice to make: Should he follow the lead of the independent evangelicals, whose style clearly fired his soul, or seek ordination in the established church, where he found the preaching uninspired? Despite misgivings, he decided to seek Anglican ordination but had trouble securing the necessary testimonials ("they are all afraid to own a suspected Methodist"). When his application was rejected, he was crushed. He began to preach at home on Sunday evenings—first for his family, then for a handful of friends, and soon for a packed room.

Newton eventually achieved ordination and was assigned to a parish in the town of Olney. As early as October 1765 he was writing hymns to accompany particular Biblical texts: "I am sometimes forced to make a few lines myself, when I cannot suit the text from the books I have."

He concluded this diary in 1766 with a sense of gratitude and astonishment: "It is more than 16 years since I began to write in this book. How many scenes have I past thro in the Time. By what a way has the Lord led me, what wonders has he shewn me!" Newton hoped that his life—as described in a lifetime of diaries—would serve as inspiration to others. He asked God to "give a History to all who may read these records of thy Goodness, & my own vileness."

Image Caption: 

John Newton (1725–1807). Olney Hymns. London: W. Oliver, 1779. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan before 1913.

Index to the diary of John Newton (1725–1807), 1756–72. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan before 1913.