The African sailed through the waves north of Africa with a full cargo. Her captain sat comfortably in his quarters reading his Bible and thanking God for what looked to be a profitable voyage. Considering himself one of the more humane of Britain’s slave traders, John Newton self-righteously compared himself to other captains: “A guilty conscience haunts them all,”1 he once wrote. Meanwhile, some four hundred fifty Africans languished below decks in unimaginable filth, barely having enough room to lie on their sides. One night in 1751, some of them broke their shackles and mounted an uprising. The crew suppressed the rebellion, and Captain Newton put the ringleaders in neck yokes and tortured them with the thumbscrew. Returning to his cabin, Newton praised God for helping him keep the slaves subdued. “Except the Lord keep the city,” he wrote, “the watchman waketh but in vain.”2
The first British slavers traded their human cargoes for sugar in Surinam and Barbados, but in time, they gained contracts to sell slaves also to Spanish colonists in the New World. British ports grew rich from the trade. Liverpool, Newton’s home port, was the center of Britain’s slave economy. Stores advertized “collars for blacks and dogs,” and fashionable ladies would often be seen in town with turbaned slave boys attending them. The abolitionist movement was not yet underway, so the buying and selling of human beings went almost unquestioned. Buoyed by its sinister trade, Liverpool had become by 1792 one of the largest and most prosperous ports in Europe.
Newton’s seafaring life began when his father hired him out to a Liverpool sugar merchant. Surrounded by the customs of his fellows, the young sailor soon plunged into a downward spiral of vulgarity, debauchery, and fornication. In 1745, he went to work for a slave trader, Mr. Clow, on an island off the west coast of Africa. There he fell ill with malaria and was treated with horrible contempt by Clow’s mistress. Newton later believed he thus learned firsthand the contempt and deprivation endured by the slaves. He escaped the abuse in 1748, when he gained passage on a ship bound for Liverpool. On the night of March 21, just a few days from port, the crew awoke to a violent storm, which threatened to destroy the ship. Certain there was no way of escape, Newton cried out to God for help.
The Lord indeed spared Newton’s life, and the debauched sailor reformed his outward behavior. He stopped cursing and began a study of the New Testament. For all this, however, he never seems to have seen the evil of his work as a slave trader. In fact, Newton spent four more years as the captain of a slave ship, selling hundreds of Africans into servitude, and all the while praising God for His gracious provision. Newton’s slave trading career finally came to an end in 1754 when he suffered an epileptic seizure. He never sailed again.
A decade of deskwork in Liverpool gave Newton plenty of time to continue his study of the Bible, thinking and praying about his life. In 1764, he became pastor in Olney, where he wrote Amazing Grace, perhaps the most famous hymn in the English language. His study of the Word of God finally led him to repent of his involvement in the slave trade, and he spent the rest of his life laboring and praying for its abolition. He served the church in Olney for fourteen years until he was ordained rector of St. Mary Woolnoth at London. It was there he discipled the young William Wilberforce, encouraging him to remain in politics and work to eliminate the slave trade.
Newton’s repentance was a long process, not a single cataclysmic event. He continued to remember March 21, 1748 (the night of the storm), as a holy day, but he also knew his outward reforms did not constitute true repentance. The Lord worked in his heart for years, almost imperceptibly, before he could truthfully write the immortal words, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” This is the grace that pastors themselves have received from a merciful, patient God; this is the grace they joyfully proclaim to all who repent of sin.
1 William E. Phipps, Amazing Grace in John Newton: Slave-Ship Captain, Hymnwriter, and Abolitionist (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001), 56. See also, John Piper, The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002).
2 Phipps, 58.