John Newton was born in London on this day in 1725. At the age of eleven he went to sea with his father, who was a ship’s captain. After his father’s retirement, John signed on with a merchant ship sailing to the Mediterranean. He later served a brief and unsuccessful stint in the Royal Navy, after which he joined the crew of a slave ship bound for West Africa. But the ship’s crew found him troublesome, and they left him with an African slave dealer named Amos Clowe, who gave him to his wife as her slave. He was later rescued by friends of his father and returned to England. He continued his involvement in the slave trade for many years, despite having undergone a religious conversion on one of his voyages, and did not become an outspoken abolitionist until the age of 63. He worked with his friend William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, to abolish the slave trade, and he lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act in March of 1807. He died that December.
Today John Newton is best remembered as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” In 1982, 175 years after his death, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Here’s a lovely performance of Newton’s greatest hit, sung by Il Divo.