This past week, Pastor Laura explained her own concerns about a few of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” but in her comments, she emphasized the beauty of grace and its transformative effects on the song’s author, John Newton. Jonathon Aitken writes beautifully about the significance of grace for Newton’s life:
Newton’s early years were indeed disgraceful. He was a wild and angry young man who rebelled against authority at every opportunity, starting with foolish acts of disobedience against his father. Press-ganged at the age of eighteen into the Royal Navy, he broke its rules so recklessly that he earned himself a public flogging for desertion. Filled with “bitter rage and black despair,” he was torn between committing suicide and murdering his captain. Only his unrequited love for a thirteen-year-old girl he had met in Chatham, Polly Catlett, restrained his destructive instincts. Exchanged from his warship to a slave ship in Madeira, Newton became even wilder in his behavior. “I was exceedingly vile,” he said. “I not only sinned with a high hand myself but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.” Revealing the first glimpse of his later talent as a hymn-writer, he composed a derogatory song about his new captain and taught it to the entire crew. He had to leave the ship in a hurry after that bout of troublemaking; so Newton’s next move was to work for a shore-based slave trader in Sierra Leone. He indulged in every available vice including witchcraft. Accused (unfairly) of stealing, he fell foul of his employer’s black mistress, a tribal princess who imprisoned him in chains, starved him, and treated him brutally. He was rescued from a remote part of the West African coastline by a ship’s captain from Liverpool. Because Newton’s lifestyle had improved by this time, he initially refused the offer of a passage home, but the thought of seeing Polly again won him over. During the long voyage to England Newton again behaved appallingly as a troublemaker. Although he had been brought up in the Christian faith by his devout mother, who died when he was six, Newton had become such an aggressive atheist and blasphemer that even his shipmates were shocked by his oaths. Halfway across the Atlantic, out of boredom, he picked up the only available book on board the ship, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. As he read it he began to worry that its words might be true. So he slammed the book shut and went to sleep until awakened in the middle of a terrifying storm by the cry, “The ship is sinking!” The ship was badly holed and waterlogged. As it seemed to be going down, Newton, to his own great astonishment, began to pray, “Lord, have mercy on us!” After many hours of extreme peril, the storm subsided, and Newton felt at peace. “About this time,” he said, “I began to know that there is a God who answers prayer.” Almost immediately Newton stopped swearing, changed his licentious lifestyle, and started to pray and read the Bible. From that day, March 21, 1748, until his death in 1807 he never let a year go by without recognizing in prayerful thanksgiving what he called his “great turning day” of conversion.
Aitken, Jonathan; Philip Yancey (2008-03-31). John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (p. 19). Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.
From there, Newton went on to become a passionate advocate for abolition and, of course, to write one of the most widely known hymns in Western Christianity. His own struggles to come to terms with grace had political and spiritual impacts that still resonate with most of us today.
But as the PL pointed out, maybe we don’t understand grace in the same way that Newton did. Perhaps it isn’t best for us to dwell on our wretchedness but instead to remember the grace and beauty offered each one of us in this life. Certainly wretchedness and evil exist in our world, but our hope lies in the possibility of life precisely in the presence of those realities. As a community of faith, may we always be open to give and receive amazing grace to one another as we work towards a better reality.