John Newton and Amazing Grace

Born in Wapping in 1725 the son of a master mariner, John Newton spent the first part of his career as a slave trader. From 1745 -1754 he worked on slave ships, serving as Captain on three voyages.

In 1748 Newton was dramatically converted on one of these voyages during a violent storm when he called on God for mercy. Following his conversion, he became “surveyor of tides” in Liverpool and began theological study but it wasn’t until later in life, however, that he came to see clearly how wrong the slave trade was. Newton wrote: "I hope 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."

 

In 1780 Newton became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth a position he would hold for 27 years until 1807. It was during this period that his own story of personal redemption, God’s grace and the beginnings of the abolitionist movement were drawn together.

 

The hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ was written during his time as curate at Olney Church in Buckinghamshire and was first introduced by Newton in his New Year’s Day Sermon on 1 January 1773.  Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” is likely to be the most widely sung hymn in the world speaking of the gospel message of redemption and hope, it is sung often by Christians and is an anthem for the world. 

 

At a service to mark the 225th Anniversary of the first meeting of The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade at St Mary Woolnoth, it was noted that ‘that the authenticity of the emotion expressed, the posture of God of complete dependence . . . seems to touch a chord with people everywhere’. 

 

The song has become a resistance song. It was sung before Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. It was sung when Nelson Mandela was freed. It was sung when the Berlin Wall came down.’ 

Also noted at that service was a reminder that the words of ‘Amazing Grace’ speaking of Newton’s own faith journey are an inspiration to all in Christian ministry. What was said then is equally true today, ‘that we cannot create programs that outrun the personal authenticity of our relationships with neighbours and ultimately our relationships with God.’

 

In the last days of Newton’s life his mobility, eyesight and even his memory deserted him. He said that he remembered two things: “That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great saviour.”

 

 

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

Was Grace that taught my heart to fear

And Grace, my fears relieved

How precious did that Grace appear

The hour I first believed

Through many dangers, toils and snares

We have already come

T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far

And Grace will lead us home

And Grace will lead us home

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

Was blind, but now I see


Over the years there have been times when the willingness of churches to challenge the City has been muted and they have gone with the flow rather than stepping up as a voice at the intersection of trade and finance. One of those failures was speaking up on the slave trade which was allowed to go unchallenged by many for centuries. But that all changed in the late 18th century and Lombard Street played several key roles in bringing the trade to an end in Britain. Two Lombard Street locations stand out: George Yard and St Mary Woolnoth. 

 

Read more here.