Text by: John Newton 1779
Tune: Ballerma by: Fracois H Barthelemon 1741-1808
1 Approach, my soul, the mercy seat,
where Jesus answers pray’r;
there humbly fall before His feet,
for none can perish there.
2 Thy promise is my only plea,
with this I venture nigh;
Thou callest burdened souls to Thee,
and such, O Lord, am I.
3 Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
by Satan sorely pressed,
by wars without, and fears within,
I come to Thee for rest.
4 Be Thou my shield and hiding place,
that, sheltered near Thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
and tell him, “Thou hast died.”
5 O wondrous love, to bleed and die,
to bear the cross and shame,
that guilty sinners such as I,
might plead Thy gracious name.
6 “Poor tempest-tossèd soul, be still,
my promised grace receive”;
’tis Jesus speaks; I must, I will,
I can, I do believe.
Much of John Newton’s hymn writing reflects a profound awareness of his own unworthiness of the grace so richly bestowed. While his most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace” has occasioned the retelling of his work as a slave ship captain; this is the rest of the story!
His father, John Newton Sr., was a shipmaster in the Mediterranean Service. His mother, Elizabeth died when John Jr. was almost 7 years old. John Sr. eventually remarried and John Jr. lived with his father and step-mother after living in a boarding school for a couple of years. By the time he was 11 he began to join his father on a half dozen voyages before Sr.’s retirement in 1742. Jr. decided to continue to sail and signed on with a Mediterranean merchant ship.
The next year, while visiting friends he was captured and pressed into service by the British Royal Navy. He was given a minor officer ranking on the HMS Harwich. He tried to escape and was severely punished. He received a flogging of 8 dozen lashes and reduced to a common seaman rank.
On the way to India, he was allowed to transfer to the Pegasus, a slave ship bound for West Africa to pick up slaves bound for North America. Newton had become a difficult person, even for those involved in the slave trade. The crew of the Pegasus abandoned him in West Africa with an African slave dealer who gave Newton to his wife as her slave. She abused him, as she abused all of her slaves. (Reminiscent of Joseph’s experience with his brothers.)
About 3 years after his African enslavement he was rescued by a friend of his father who had been asked to look for John Jr. It was on his return voyage to England that the conversion of John Newton’s soul began. He spent the long voyage reading the Bible. While nearly home, the ship was caught in a severe storm off the coast of Ireland and was sinking due to damage to her hull. The cargo shifted, plugging the damage just enough for the ship to drift into port.
He continued to read the Bible and other literature through the final leg of his trip home to London. By the time he arrived, he had accepted the tenets of Evangelical Christianity (as they existed in the mid-18th century). He marked the changed in his life as March 10, 1748, an anniversary he celebrated the rest of his life. From this date his life was marked by profound changes. The sailor life was over. The important point is that the changes started, not finished. He, like the rest of us, worked out his salvation with fear and trembling and frequent failings.
He did continue to work in the slave trade through these early years, though now doing so with an appreciation of what it meant to be a slave. In his own words: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”
For the next several years, until a stroke in 1754 he continued to captain slave ships.
After leaving the sailing business he worked as a tax collector for the Port of Liverpool and in his free time began to study Greek, Hebrew and Syriac to prepare for religious study. In 1757 he first applied to become a priest for the Church of England and was denied. He also applied various other Protestant churches active in England; the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Independents. Finally in 1764 he was ordained in Olney, Buckinghamshire.
He became acquainted with John Thornton, who was a wealthy merchant and was active as an evangelical philanthropist. Newton’s work in and care of his community led to his being respected by both Anglicans and the growing and controversial Nonconformist churches.
Through these years, the Spirit continued to work on Newton’s soul. Thirty-four years after he left the slave trade, in 1788, he wrote and published a very powerful and influential pamphlet: “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” He describe the inhuman conditions on a slave ship. He issued an apology for his work and engagement in the slave 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.”
Working with William Wilberforce, they pushed for the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended the slave trade in England.
Newton would describe the time between his initial conversion experience to his eventual renunciation of the institution of slavery as a period he was not fully a Christian. His hymns certainly reflect his understanding of his guilt and needfulness of grace. He was fully aware of his sin and acknowledged it publicly and privately. His example would serve the church well today.