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John Newton

1725-1807. Anglican clergyman and hymnwriter. Son of a merchant sea captain, he had an unsettled childhood and turbulent youth, including several periods of intense religious experience. He was forced to join the Royal Navy, tried to escape, was arrested in West Africa, and eventually became virtually the slave of a white slavetrader's black wife. She humiliated him, and he lived hungry and destitute for two years, involved in the slave trade. In 1747 he boarded a ship for England, but a violent storm in the North Atlantic nearly sank them. For Newton it was a moment of revelation, and he turned to God.

Nevertheless, further slave trading followed, but in 1755 he gave up the sea, and in 1764 became curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire. There, in a successful ministry of fifteen years, he befriended the poet William Cowper* and also became widely known. The two produced the Olney Hymns, of which a number are still in general use, including “Amazing grace,” “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” and “Glorious things of thee are spoken.” In 1779 Newton moved to London, becoming vicar of St. Mary, Woolnoth. His influence was widely felt, especially in the evangelical world. Handel's Messiah had made an enormous impact on London, and Newton preached a famous series of sermons on the texts Handel had used as libretto. After one of these the young William Wilberforce* sought his counsel. In his latter years, Newton played a leading part in Wilberforce's political campaign which led to the abolition of the slave trade.

See B. Martin, John Newton (1950), and M.L. Loane, Oxford and the Evangelical Succession (1950).