Saints CVs – John Newton (1725-1807)

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

John Newton’s Amazing Grace may be the most famous hymn in the world - it’s instantly recognizable, whether played by a piper on an Edinburgh street corner or sung a cappella by US president Barack Obama at a memorial service. In fact, many famous singers have recorded versions of Amazing Grace, including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Celine Dion.

Amazing Grace was 250 years old in 2023, since the hymn had its first rendition on New Year’s Day, 1773. In any ‘top ten’ compilation of Christian hymns, Amazing Grace is ever present in the list and often right up at number one.

The man behind the hymn certainly experienced God’s amazing grace; John Newton started out as a wild-living sailor. After deserting from the Royal Navy, Newton became involved in the slave trade. He sailed on ships transporting people from Africa to America. During one voyage in 1748, Newton’s vessel was caught by a dreadful storm, and he cried out for God’s mercy. Later, he remembered that day as the time when he began to trust the Lord - ‘the hour I first believed’.

After quitting the sea for health reasons, he worked in Liverpool for several years as a tide surveyor. His interest in evangelism grew over this period. He was ordained as a curate in the Church of England and was sent to the Buckinghamshire parish of Olney in 1764. Here, at St. Peter and St. Paul church, he preached several times a week and composed many hymns for the congregation to sing. Along with his poetic friend and neighbour William Cowper, he collated 348 songs into a volume of Olney Hymns. Newton’s contributions include hymns we continue to sing today, like:

Amazing grace; Come, my soul, thy suit prepare; and How sweet the name of Jesus sounds. The Cowper and Newton museum at Olney has interesting exhibits about Newton’s life and times. However, the notebook containing the transcript for his ‘Amazing Grace’ sermon on 1 Chronicles chapter 16 verses 16 and 17 is lodged at Lambeth Palace in London.

Newton wrote about his experiences of the slave trade, admitting in retrospect that it was an ‘unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce’ in which his personal involvement was a ‘subject of humiliating reflection’. Newton had a great influence on William Wilberforce, both spiritually and in terms of campaigning against slavery.

John Newton died in 1807 at the age of eighty-two. One of his final sayings was, ‘Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner-and Christ is a great Saviour’.1 In his speaking, as in his writing, Newton was blessed with a wonderful turn of phrase. Some of his memorable quotations are listed below.

‘I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am’.2

‘If two angels were to receive at the same moment a commission from God, one to go down and rule earth’s grandest empire, the other to go and sweep the streets of its meanest village, it would be a matter of entire indifference to each which service fell to his lot, the post of ruler or the post of scavenger; for the joy of the angels lies only in obedience to God’s will’.3

‘How unspeakably wonderful to know that all our concerns are held in hands that bled for us’.4

Further reading

JONATHAN Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, Crossway, 2007.

John Newton, Thoughts upon the African slave trade, 1792. Found at:



JONATHAN Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, Crossway, 2007 (ch. 46).


The Christian Spectator, Vol. 3, 1821.


E. M. BOUNDS, The Essentials of Prayer (ch. 2). Found at:


Found at: