Song Background: Amazing Grace

The classic and awe-striking song “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton in 1772. Here is a little background information on how it came to be written.

John Newton was born in England in 1725. His mother was a puritan, who died a couple of weeks before his seventh birthday. Due to his mom’s early death, Newton’s father, a sea captain, took Newton on his ship with him when Newton was eleven. Newton had a lively and reckless youth filled with sea voyages and drinking before he was later forced to join the British Navy. He started as a midshipman, but was demoted to a common seaman for trying to desert the navy. In addition, Newton received eight lashes for his attempted escape. 

Newton later transferred to work on a slave ship heading to West Africa, and it was on this ship Newton learned how to be a slave master. No reference has been given that he was a slave owner, only a slave trader. He became sick with malaria near Sierra Leone, where he dealt with an abusive mistress. She was an African princess who treated Newton like a slave. “That saved a wretch like me” he would later write about God who saved him from this time period of his life when he was treated so poorly. At one point, Newton thought about murdering the captain, and then committing suicide by drowning. However, he did not act on this impulse. 

In 1748, Newton was rescued from the coast of Sierra Leone, where he was being abused by another sea captain. After his rescue, he was returned to England. On the way back, a terrible storm hit and everyone thought the ship would sink. In desperation, Newton cried out to God and pleaded to be saved from sinking. He promised to quit the slave trade in exchange for slave passage. However, upon reaching safety, Newton continued working with slave trade for seven more years until 1754. It would be another thirty-four years before Newton would renounce the slave trade and write the song “Amazing Grace.” 

Although Newton was a slave trader for many years after being rescued, the voyage back to England was the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. His real turning point came when he was saved by God from a severe fever and illness while heading toward the West Indies. Newton went from slave trader, to abolitionist. He published a pamphlet called Thoughts Upon a Slave Trade. In this pamphlet, Newton not only described the horrors of the slave trade, but apologized for participating in it. He admitted that he showed no mercy as a slave trader. He stated, “ “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.”

In 1772, John Newton wrote the song, “Amazing Grace,” a song about his life and God’s amazing grace. Although there is no connecction between the song “Amazing Grace” and the abolishment of the slave trade,  in October 1807, the slave trade ended in Britain, and Newton passed away a couple months later on December 21, 1807. Before his death, John Newton penned at least 200 hymns including: Christ a Redeemer and Friend, How Lost was My Condition, and Israel in Ancient Days. However, his best known song is “Amazing Grace,” which was recorded over 11,000 times by such greats as Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. 

The musical “Amazing Grace” by Christopher Smith and the accompanying book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron shares the powerful story of John Newton’s life. A life that was drastically turned around by the hand of God “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”  John Newton’s story shows that anyone can change. The Bible says in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Who can you share the Gospel with and let them know they can be forgiven and receive amazing grace?