John Henry Newton was born on July 24, 1725 in Wapping, London, the son of a shipmaster. Newton's mother, Elizabeth Seatcliffe Newton was the daughter of an instrument maker from London, but she died of tuberculosis when John was only seven years old. Two years later, Newton went to live with his father's new wife, during which he attended school.
When he was eleven, Newton worked at sea with his father. When his father retired, Newton was expected to go work on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, but Newton decided to sign on with a merchant ship in the Mediterranean instead.
Life at Sea
In 1743, Newton was captured and pressed into the naval service by the Royal Navy. He became a midshipman on the HMS Hardwich. Newton attempted to desert, but was captured and was given eight dozen lashes and was reduced to the rank of common seaman. After this event, Newton contemplated murdering the captain and committing suicide himself. Newton eventually recovered, both physically and mentally, and was transfered to the Pegasus, a slave ship bound for West Africa.
Newton was deemed a problem by the crew of the Pegasus and was handed over to a slave dealer named Amos Clowe. Clowe took Newton to the coast and gave him to Clowe's wife, an African duchess, as a slave. Newton was abused and mistreated while there, but was rescued in 1748 by a sea captain who had been hired by Newton's father to search for him.
The sea captain returned Newton to Liverpool, where Newton acquired a slave ship Brownlow. During a voyage to the West Indies, Newton became sick with fever. While sick, Newton recognized the inadequacy of his spiritual life. He then professed his full belief in Christ. After this, in 1750, Newton married his childhood sweetheart. Newton did, however, continued working in the slave trade until 1754.
Newton settled down in 1755 to become a tax collector, and in his spare time, he studied Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac and soon became a well known evangelical lay minister. In 1757, he applied to be ordained as a priest of the Church of England. He was refused multiple times by the Church of England, the Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church. It wasn't until 1764, that Newton was accepted as the priest of Olney on the recommendation of Lord Dartmouth.
In 1767, a poet named William Cowper moved to Olney. He attended Newton's church, and the two worked together to create a volume of hymns, published in 1779 as the Olney Hymns. Among these hymns was the most famous ever written, titled "Amazing Grace".
In 1788, Newton published a pamphlet entitled "Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade", in which he described the horrible conditions of slave ships he had experienced 34 years prior. In the pamphlet, Newton denounced slavery and expressed shame and humiliation for ever being part of the slave trade. Newton became an ally with William Wilberforce, who led the Parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade.
Newton lived with his wife, Mary Catlett until her death in 1790. After her death, Newton published Letters to a Wife, in which he expressed his sorrow at her passing. Newton died on December 21, 1807, but before his death, he was able to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished slavery in the British Empire. Newton is on our list because despite entering the world of slavery and cruelty, he was able to turn his life around, write one of the most famous hymns in the world, and fight against the slavery that he once practiced.