Newton’s autobiography of grace

This month, our church’s sign board reads…

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved

Grace is God’s mercy – especially when we don’t deserve it! My first memory verse says,

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” [Ephesians 2:8-9]

Newton_jGrace inspired those lines first quoted on our sign board, from that most famous of hymns, “Amazing Grace”, by Rev John Newton, the slave-trading sea captain, turned Anglican minister.

This month of August marks the 250th anniversary of the publication by John Newton in 1764 of his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of … Communicated in a Series of Letters. (They liked long book titles back then. They also liked to publish anonymously if being self-referential – a far cry from how we’d do it today!)

Newton lived 1725-1807. His mother died when he was six. Newton became a sailor, and lived what he considered a corrupt and immoral life, eventually as a slave-trading sea captain.

His conversion to Christ began with a storm at sea. Initially he continued in the slave trade but ensured the slaves were treated more humanely. But after leaving maritime life, at the age 39, also 250 years ago in 1764, he became an Anglican Minister. And eventually he came to oppose the slave trade. And to write his hymn.

Newton was a mentor for William Wilberforce, the British MP who led the dogged two-decade fight for the abolition of the slave trade. Newton also played a key role in ensuring a Christian chaplain, Rev Richard Johnson, was placed on the First Fleet sailing to establish the new colony of New South Wales. I guess Newton wanted the comfort and challenge of God’s grace to ring out to the many convicts transported to Australia.

His autobiography is structured around a series of letters he wrote to explain his life’s journey. He dates the start of his conversion to 10 March 1748, when he expected to die at sea in a storm, explaining,

“I continued at the pump from three in the morning till near noon, and then I could do no more. I went and lay down, uncertain, and almost indifferent, whether I should rise again.”

As he considered his immortality and rejection of God, he writes,

“I concluded, at first, that my sins were too great to be forgiven.”

But remarkably, when “ beyond all probability” the ship looked like surviving, he says,

“I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour. I began to pray. I could not utter the prayer of faith; I could not draw near to God, and call Him Father. … I now began to think of that Jesus whom I had so often derided; I recollected the particulars of His life, and of His death; a death for sins not His own, but, as I remembered, for the sake of those who, in their distress, should put their trust in Him.”

Newton said it was not till several years after that he had “gained some clear views of the infinite grace of God through Christ Jesus”. But he concludes his letter VIII by saying…

“About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayer.”

Here’s his hymn…

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d 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 reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

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