Grace and the amazing story of John Newton

We all have a story, and all such stories are legitimate at the level they are lived and told. You are magnificent, regardless of your strengths and flaws, and no matter how far you have strayed from your Authentic Self. We all hide parts of ourselves from others. And from ourselves. We are not quite courageous enough to allow a more genuine expression to settle into our bones, into our hearts.

Yet the tale is incomplete. And so it is that every story told seeks a new chapter. Another layer that resolves its tension and finds closure. For that resolution to occur, lessons must be learned, and themes mastered. Then, in its ultimate transcendence, the world of story itself is witnessed from outside of ourselves. Here we can draw comparisons with narrative types in literary theory. When we are in the unawakened state, we are merged with the story. The story lives us. This is the first-person protagonists’ perspective. Ultimately by adopting a witnessing perspective we can begin to transcend the story as a third-person, objective narrator to our own lives. We now live the story. Finally, in very deep states of consciousness the rarest life narratorial form emerges, that of third-person omniscient narrator. We may experience this in flashes of revelation in meditation, dreams, crisis visions, ayahuasca trips and so on. The study of near-death experiences represents perhaps the most extensive body of report-based data in this respect. Anita Moorjani, author of Dying to be Me, experienced this state when she came close to dying from cancer. As she was being rushed to the hospital and slipping into a coma, Moorjani suddenly found her consciousness being radically shifted. She found herself in a transcendent realm, looking at her life and all lives from an all-knowing realm.

I was transformed in unimaginable clarity as I realized that this expanded, magnificent essence was really me. It was the truth of my being. The understanding was so clear: I was looking into a new paradigm of self, becoming the crystalline light of my own awareness.[i]

Disconnection from the Authentic Self is an inevitable part of all our journeys. We are lost. Then we are found. That is a grace so amazing that it inspired English poet and clergyman John Newton to write these famous words some two hundred and fifty years ago. 

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.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

  And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

  The hour I first believed![ii]

We have all heard the song. But you may not know the story behind it. Born in 1725, John Newton’s childhood was one of much suffering and despair.[iii] His mother, who held firm religious convictions, died of tuberculosis when he was but six years old, and his father was absent for years at sea. Newton was thus raised by his cold and emotionally distant stepmother. Newton was soon sent away to boarding school, where his years as a student were marked by angry disobedience and abuse at the hands of his teachers. A brief and bleak childhood all too quickly became premature adulthood, as at the age of eleven Newton went to join his father at sea. The Englishman abandoned all faith in religion, writing: “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.”[iv]

Newton became a rebellious and recalcitrant individual, and that behaviour led to him being conscripted into the Royal Navy. But he soon deserted, pursuing courtship with a young woman named Mary “Polly” Cattlett, who was a family friend. Yet no love was to be bestowed upon him yet, for the humiliation of deserting followed him like a dark specter, and he was traded to work on a slave ship.

The bawdy young sailor saw no reason to change his rebellious ways, and his life as a troublemaker continued. Newton’s creative flair for language was soon put to use, as he regularly mocked the ship’s captain, deriding him with obscene poems and songs. Other crew member’s shared Newton’s coarse sense of humour, and the songs were regular “hits” on deck. Yet the angry child within Newton wasn’t about to let popularity go to his head, and regular conflicts with his fellow seafarers led to periods of chained imprisonment, often without food. Newton thus found himself shackled like the slaves aboard his ship, and almost starved to death. He was then literally enslaved on a plantation in Sierra Leone. Despairingly, the young Englishman became resigned to his wretched fate, but when he wrote a letter to his father describing his situation, the latter intervened. Shortly thereafter a crew from another ship stumbled upon him, and he was freed.

At the age of 23, Newton was sailing in the Greyhound off the north-east coast of Ireland, when it was hit by a terrible storm. Furious winds tossed the boat while angry seas threatened to swallow it. For hours the crew bailed water from the ship. Newton saw a crewmember swept into the turgid sea right before him. To avoid the same fate, Newton tied himself with another shipmate to the ship’s pump, stating, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” echoing words written in Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which he had read only several weeks prior. John Newton returned to the deck to take the wheel, steering the battered vessel for almost half a day. In the long hours that it took the Greyhound reach safety, the seas tossed and turned the vessel, even as Newton contemplated his life and relationship with God.

It was another two weeks before the ship was able to land in Ireland, a time during which the crew had almost starved to death. But the safety of port did not quell Newton’s troubled mind. He started to become more humble and prayerful, asking if his wretched existence could be redeemed in the eyes of God. He felt deep guilt at his neglect of faith and mocking derision of others’ religious beliefs.

John Newton’s story was thus forever changed. God had whispered, and the bawdy sailor began to feel that he had a new mission: to do God’s work on Earth. But his was no blinding flash of revelation, no instantaneous conversion. It was a slow unfolding over several years.

Newton changed his attitudes and behaviour enough to convince Polly’s family to allow him to court her and eventually get married. Yet he continued to work as a slave trader, sailing the coasts of Africa as a ship’s captain, then transporting his wretched cargo to North America. It was only when his health deteriorated at age 30 that Newton left the slave business behind. In 1756 he began working as a customs agent in Liverpool, teaching himself Latin, Greek, and theology. And after several years of work in the Church of England community, in 1764 he was eventually ordained and offered the curacy of Olney, a tiny town of some 2500 residents in Buckinghamshire.

Collaborating with William Cowper, Newton wrote the words to Amazing Grace in 1772, as part of a church service. Seven years later a collection of the religious poems of Newton and Cowper was published anonymously as the Olney Hymns. “Amazing Grace” was then entitled “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” Till that point the hymn had had a life of relative obscurity, but it soon became popular in the United States. The version we hear today was set to music by William Walker in 1835.[v]

Despite speculation, there’s no direct evidence that the “wretchedness” mentioned in the song refers to the slave trade, and Newton only voiced abolitionist sentiments after he left Olney in the 1780s. It was nonetheless clearly a religious piece, drawing inspiration from the Bible. The reference to being lost and found, for instance, is taken from the parable of the Prodigal Son, while the theme of being healed of blindness echoes Jesus’ healing a blind man in the Gospel of John.

This is a “wretched” story indeed. But it is not only John Newton’s story. It is, yet again, our story. The journey of the hero. A tale of a man who becomes lost upon dark and stormy seas, who confronts death and the narrative of his own life, who is then to be born again, his story transformed.

Amazing Grace touches a universal human theme, that forgiveness and redemption are available to all humans, no matter how much we have “sinned.”[vi] There is another layer of existence beyond our story of despair and suffering, and it involves a deepening awareness of an intelligence that is not within our immediate control, forces that our small-s-self can barely sense. This is why “Amazing Grace” is one of the most sung of all songs in the English-speaking world, with thousands of recordings. With every orbit of our planet about the yellow star, individuals of our species sing the tune around ten million times.[vii] Many of us live life acting out a story that we did not consciously choose, via a self that has not understood who we truly are. If we can accept that without judging ourselves or others, without making it wrong that we have not quite been true to ourselves, then our Authentic Self is ready to emerge.

This is an extract from Marcus T Anthony’s latest book, Power and Presence: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self in a Digitized World.

[i] Anita Moorjani, (2012). Dying to Be Me. Hay House.

[ii] “Amazing Grace.” (2021)

[iii] “Amazing Grace.” July 19, 2021.

[iv] Quoted in, “Amazing Grace.” July 19, 2021.

[v] “Amazing Grace.” July 19, 2021.

[vi] “Amazing Grace.” July 19, 2021.

[vii] “Amazing Grace.” July 19, 2021.

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