Hymn Story of John Newton by Billy Graham [Crusader Hymns,
in 1966 during the Earls Court crusade in London, we were
driving between speaking engagements in the university towns
of Oxford and Cambridge. Suddenly I noticed that we were passing
through the village of Olney and I remarked to my wife, "There's
a famous church and graveyard here. Let's stop to visit them."
through the Olney village square, we passed the former home
of William Cowper. It is now a museum that houses the personal
effects of that great English poet, to whom we are indebted
for classic poetry as well as for some of our finest hymns.
This village is also famous as the place where the Shrove
Tuesday pancake races originated.
parish church of Saints Peter and Paul was built in the fourteenth
century, but much of the original beauty and dignity remains.
In the corner of the churchyard, almost overgrown with tall
grass, we found what we were looking for--a large tombstone
with these words inscribed:
Newton, Clerk; once an infidel and libertine, a servant
of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord
and Saviour Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned,
and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored
was the son of a sea captain who was engaged in the Mediterranean
trade. His mother died when he was six, and after only two
years of formal schooling he joined his father's ship at the
age of eleven. His early life was one of immorality, debauchery
and failure. He was rejected by his father, in trouble with
all his employers, and finally jailed and degraded. In later
years he served on slave ships, where he so incurred the hatred
of his employer's negro wife that he became virtually a "slave
miserable seaman was brought to his senses by reading Thomas
A Kempis's book, Imitation of Christ. His actual conversion
was the result of a violent storm in which he almost lost
his life. At the age of thirty-nine, John Newton became a
minister and gave the rest of his life to serving God in the
church. During the fifteen years he was the pastor at Olney,
he wrote many hymns. Together with William Cowper, he published
a hymnal which was widely used in Anglican churches.
to me that "Amazing Grace" is really Newton's own
testimony of his conversion and of his life as a Christian.
He might have begun the hymn with the first stanza of another
of his poems, "He Died for Me," but these words
have somehow dropped out of use:
evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
grace" has been defined as "His undeserved favor."
It was this grace that reached out to John Newton. When he
learned that Christ loved him and had died for him, he was
amazed. It was this grace which made him conscious that he
was a sinner ("grace taught my heart to fear") and
then assured him that his sins were forgiven ("grace
my fears relieved"). So it is with all of us. We are
all "great sinners" not only because of transgressions
committed, but also because we fall short of God's standard
for our lives. And this "amazing grace" is available
to all of us.
believers we continue to experience God's undeserved love
and favor throughout all of life. Every day He forgives our
shortcomings, if we confess them. Every day He supplies all
Newton never ceased to marvel at God's mercy and grace that
had been granted to him. Over the mantelpiece in the Olney
vicarage he had placed an inscription which still remains:
thou wast precious in my sight, thou has been honourable
(Isa. 43:4). But thou shalt remember that thou wast a
bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed
thee (Deut. 15:15).
forgot the sea. Late in life, when he was pastor of St. Mary,
Woolnoth in London, Newton entered the pulpit in the uniform
of a sailor, with a Bible in one hand and a hymnbook in the
other. His mind was failing then, and he sometimes had to
be reminded what he was preaching about. When someone suggested
that he should retire, he replied, "What, shall the old
African blasphemer stop while he can speak?" On another
occasion, he said, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember
two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a
tell us that the last stanza of this song was not written
by John Newton. But I think he would agree that it is a fitting
climax to his testimony. After he--and we--have been in heaven
for ten thousand years worshipping our Lord, we will still
have endless time to sing of His amazing grace!
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.
grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun.
Newton, 1-3 (1725-1807)
John P. Rees, 4 (ascribed) (1828-1900)