John Newton was born in London on July 24, 1725. When he was eleven years old he went to sea with his father, 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.
In 1748 Newton was rescued by friends of his father and returned to England. He continued his involvement in the slave trade for many years, despite his own experience as a slave, and despite having undergone a religious conversion on one of his voyages. He did not become a true abolitionist until many years after a stroke had forced him to retire from active involvement in the trade.
In 1788, Newton published a pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, in which he described the hideous conditions on the slave ships. He wrote that “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.” He joined in the efforts of William Wilberforce and other abolitionists in Parliament to outlaw the slave trade, and he lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act on March 25, 1807. Nine months later, he died in London, the city of his birth.
John Newton is best remembered today 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.