A Song and a Sailor


Today I want to tell you a story about a song and a sailor.

John Newton was born almost 300 years ago, 1725, into a seafaring family in Liverpool, England. His father was the captain of a trade ship traveling the world, leaving his wife and son alone most of the time.

His mother was a godly woman whose faith gave her life meaning.  She died of tuberculosis when John was 7, and he recalled that his sweetest memory of childhood was the soft and gentle voice of his mother singing or praying.

His father married again, and John left boarding school at 11 to go to sea with him. He easily adopted the vulgar life of seafaring men, even though he always remembered his mother and her faith.

He reckoned that religious faith could be important, he recalled many years later, “but, I loved sin.”

John’s father retired when he was 17 and his  father made plans for him to work at a sugar plantation in Jamaica.  John thought he knew better, and went to work on a merchant ship sailing to the Mediteranean Sea.

A year later, while he was on shore leave to visit friends, John was what they call “Shanghied”, kidnapped and forced to work for the Royal Navy on the HMS Harwich.

Nobody likes to be kidnapped and force to work, so John deserted, tired to run away, but he was soon captured, put in chains, and dragged back to the ship, where they tied him to a post and beat him as an example for any others that thought about disobeying.

John was so mad he wanted to kill the Captain, and jump overboard,  he later said, “The Lord had by all appearances given me up to harsh judgements. I was capable of anything. I had not the least fear of God, nor any sense of a conscience.  I was firmly sure that after death,  I should merely cease to be.”

The Harwich traded him to a slaving ship, bound for West Africa to take aboard human cargo.  John later reflected,     “At this period of my life,”  “I was big with mischief and, like one afflicted with a disease, was capable of spreading a sort of sickness wherever I went.”

John´s new captain liked him, and took him to his home on an island off the African coast, where the captain had conveniently married a really mean African duchess.  She was jealous of John and didn’t like him from the start. While they were in Africa, John got sick, and the captain had a boat loaded with people that he had to get to the Americas because he wanted to sell them as slaves.  They set sail without John.

John was left in the duchess’ care and the ship had barely sailed out of sight when the mean duchess threw John into a pigsty, and left the already sick man to die.  John did not die, but was kept in chains and fed slop. He got so sick and infected that he went blind for a while.

This part of the story reminded me of the story of the prodigal son, eating the pig’s food and reflecting on the bad choices he had made, wishing he had heeded his father’s wishes.

Word spread through the area that a black woman was keeping a white slave, and many people came from far away just to make fun of him.  They threw rotten limes and stones at him, mocking his misery.  He would have starved, but the people that the mean duchess had kidnapped to be sold as slaves shared their food with him while they waited to be shipped to the Americas.

Five years passed and the captain returned.   When John told how he had been treated ,the duchess called him a liar, and the Captain got mad at him.

When he was finally went back to work on the ship, everybody on the ship felt free, and even encouraged to be mean to John. He ate only the worst food, if he got to eat at all. John would later recall,”The voyage quite broke my spirit,” “and the effects would always stay with me as a needful reminder of wages and sin.”  While I was working in the slave trade, I never gave a minute of thought about how wrong we were to buy and sell other humans, or anything else we wanted to do.

Miraculously, in 1748, he was rescued  by a sea captain who had been hired by Newton’s father to search for him.

Now here I want to mention the difference in the prodigal son story. John’s father didn’t just sit at the window looking down the road. John’s father went out searching and asking everyone he could think of, “Will you help me find my son?”

On the way home, the ship encountered a huge storm and almost sank.  John woke up in the middle of the night and saw the ship filling fast with water rushing in.

With what he was sure was his last breath, John called out to God.  After he called out, the cargo got loose, floated up and stopped up the hole where the water was coming in, the ship was able to drift to safety.

John was overwhelmed with the thought that God´s mercy remained steadfast, even after his life of hostile indifference to the Gospel.

The wanton sinner,   the arrogant blasphemer,    the mocker of the faith of others, was driven to his knees. “My prayer was like the squawking cry of ravens, and still, the Lord listened.”

John arrived back in England to reflect on the mercies God had shown him, despite his sinful life.  He started going to church again, and with much repentance and belief in God’s mercy, he was baptized. He got a job and studied languages and the Bible in his spare time. He became a well known speaker with his testimony.  In 1757, he applied to be a priest, and was ordained in 1765.  He worked with a poet friend and they wrote a few songs together.

On Christmas day of 1807 he died at the age of 82, leaving many testimonies to the miracles of God.    One of his last writings, started like this: “I commit my soul to my gracious God and Savior, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an sinner, a blasphemer and an infidel, and who delivered me from that situation on the coast of Africa into which my stubborn wickedness had plunged me.”

His testimony, set to music, would become one of my favorite songs.

He called it Faith’s Review and Expectation. We call it Amazing Grace.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound    That saved a wretch like me.    I once was lost, but now am found,    Was blind, but now I see.

Who wrote your favorite songs?  I hope you want to know more about them now.

Judy Jacob


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