John Newton: Did You Know?

Newton the muse

Did Newton inspire the writers of Europe’s Romantic movement? Various critics have seen him as anticipating Blake’s prophetic vision, or as a source for Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or for episodes in Wordsworth’s “Prelude.”

Man in the middle

Even John Wesley recognized the role Newton played in forging a “center” for evangelical Christianity. He wrote to Newton, “You appear to be designed by Divine Providence for an healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God that are needlessly divided from each other.”

Yes, that’s 216 welts

When caught attempting to leave the Royal Navy, into which he had been impressed against his will, Newton was whipped 24 times with a cat-o'-nine-tails (similar to the whip in the eighteenth-century scene above). This was actually the lighter punishment for going absent without leave. He could have been hung for desertion.

Those . . . blessed Yankees

In June of 1775, after news of the first shots of the War of American Independence broke, Newton’s Olney parishioners held an impromptu early-morning prayer meeting. Newton reported to Lord Dartmouth, Olney’s Lord of the Manor and Secretary of State for the American Colonies, that between 150 and 200 people turned out at five o'clock in the morning. Newton spoke about the state of the nation, and for an hour the group sang and prayed together.

Savage on a chain of grace

Newton knew he had no grounds for spiritual pride. He once described in a letter having seen a lion at a county fair. The animal, usually docile and obedient with its keeper, at times turned surly and untouchable. Newton saw himself in this lion: “I know and love my Keeper and sometimes watch His looks that I may learn His will. But oh! I have my surly fits too—seasons when I relapse into the savage again—as though I had forgotten all.” To his correspondent he added, “I got a hymn out of this lion.”

Amazing hymn

Newton wrote what would become his best known hymn to accompany a sermon on 1 Chronicles 17:16, 17 (the first page of Newton’s manuscript is shown at right). In these verses, David responds to God’s promise that he will maintain David’s line and his kingdom forever: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?”

The original title of Newton’s most famous hymn, as it first appeared in his Olney Hymns, was “Faith’s review and expectation.” Not quite as punchy as “Amazing Grace"! CH

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #81 in 2004]

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