July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” was born. Newton’s autobiography (An Authentic Narrative of some Interesting and Remarkable Particulars in the Life of John Newton, 1764) makes clear how repeatedly lost and found a wretch he was. He first went to sea with his merchant marine father at the age of eleven, and first began his career as a sailor at age seventeen. Press-ganged into service aboard an English man-of-war, he was such a troublemaker that he was released to a slave trader; the trader abandoned Newton to the whims of his “African princess” concubine, who starved him, and encouraged the natives to jeer and throw rocks at her white slave. There followed a sequence of better or worse treatment by other captain-traders, and a series of broken pledges made by Newton to reform a life “big with mischief.” Finally, at age twenty-two, he secured passage home to England and, during a savage storm off the coast of Newfoundland, he received a born-again deliverance into evangelical Christianity, though there was some backsliding over the next few years. Newton eventually became a passionate abolitionist, and his famous hymn eventually became popular in the slave-bound American South.
Apart from the autobiography, and the Olney Hymns written with the poet William Cowper, Newton is known for his letters. These are devout and purposeful, but “the old African blasphemer” reveals himself to his parishioners as human, still spirited, and mindful of his youth:
Last week we had a lion in town. I went to see him. He was wonderfully tame; as familiar with his keeper, as docile and obedient as a spaniel. Yet the man told me he had his surly fits, when they durst not touch him. No looking-glass could express my face more justly than this lion did my heart. I could trace every feature: as wild and fierce by nature; yea, much more so; but grace has in some measure tamed me. I know and love my Keeper, and sometimes watch his looks that I may learn his will. But, oh! I have my surly fits too; seasons when I relapse into the savage again, as though I had forgotten all.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.