Roused from his sleep by the sudden jolt of waves crashing against the ship's hull and the roar of gale-force winds, and scrambling from his hammock as his cabin started to fill with seawater, he heard a shipmate on deck scream that the ship was sinking. He raced up the ladder to the deck but met the captain who shouted for him to bring a knife. As he rushed back down to retrieve it the man who had been behind him went ahead and was instantly washed overboard.
When John reached the deck he found chaos as the crew raced about the vessel making frenzied repairs, bailing water, and fighting to stay on board as the relentless swells swept across the deck. Several manned the pumps feverishly, but the rising water was gaining on them. Their cargo was beeswax and wood, both lighter than water, otherwise they would have been doomed.
An hour later the sun rose and the winds started to subside slightly, allowing the crew to make limited progress. All day they desperately patched leaks with their clothes and bedding. That night John observed, "If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us." Instantly his own words struck him and he was overcome with panic. "What mercy can there be for me," he wondered.
Indeed, John was in no place to hope for, much less expect God's mercy. To that point it seemed he had done his best over the years to oppose God, and even undermine His work. When he was a child his mother was diligent in teaching him God's Word, earnestly praying for him, sometimes in tears — but she died before his seventh birthday. His father, a captain on a merchant ship, removed him from boarding school on his eleventh birthday and took him to sea with him where he was schooled in the ways of the profane.
At seventeen, John began a pattern of rebellion against his father, which ultimately led to his forced induction into the Royal Navy on an English "man-of-war," removing all remaining barriers to his moral demise.
While serving in the navy, then on various slave ships, over the next six years John seemed determined to hone his depravity. He had little or no respect for his captains, often mocking, disregarding, and even defying them. He developed a sordid pleasure in tempting and seducing shipmates to sin. Whenever he encountered a Christian, he took it as his mission to undermine and destroy that person's faith. Years later, as he reflected back upon his life, he referred to himself as having been an "unrestrained blasphemer" — until that night.
John was on a slave ship returning from the tropics where they had deposited their "cargo." They were taking the northern route back to England and had anchored off the coast of Newfoundland, when he had found and read a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Tomas `a Kempis, and the thought occurred to him, "What if these things should be true?" He quickly brushed the ridiculous notion aside.
But the Lord was not done with him. Through the storm that night, He got John's attention and began the process of awakening him to his own depravity.
Over the next four weeks the ship was virtually at the mercy of the elements. Battered by the storm and with a gaping hole in the hull just a few feet above water line, the ship was never more than a moment from sinking. Early spring in the North Atlantic is frigid, but the men had used their extra clothing to patch holes. They were cold, exhausted from pumping frantically around the clock, most of the food supplies had been washed overboard, and they began to lose all hope for survival.
Their plight mirrored John's own. Faced now with the truth of God's Word and the reality of a Holy God, he realized his utter sinfulness and hopelessness before God. He recognized that in his condition he was doomed before God. His spiritual despair eclipsed his concern for their survival — until he read of God's love and recognized the hope of the gospel. In one final act of desperation he cried out to the Lord and begged for mercy. The Lord heard his cry and saved him — and miraculously delivered the ship and its crew to safety.
In the following weeks, months, and years, the Lord dramatically transformed John. He studied God's Word voraciously, aligned himself with godly men, and started holding Bible studies and worship services on board ship, even initiating Bible studies for the slaves. He became increasingly convicted over the practice of slave trading and began asking the Lord to provide another career — and again the Lord answered his prayer. After a seizure and subsequent illness that kept him ashore, he was hired as tide surveyor in London.
While there, he grew strong in his walk with God, studying Greek and Hebrew on his own to enhance his personal study of God's Word. During that time John was befriended and benefited by evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley. Eventually he became convinced that God was calling him to be a pastor, and after first being denied ordination, in 1764, he became pastor of the Anglican Church in Olney, where he served fifteen years. The services became so crowded under his preaching that the building was expanded to accommodate the crowds. In 1779, John left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London, where he served until his death in 1807. While there, noted missionary William Carey was challenged and encouraged from his ministry. William Wilberforce was heavily influenced by John's life, ministry, and testimony, using his reflections on slave trading to initiate the British abolition of slavery.
A portion of his last will and testament read, "I commit my soul to my gracious God and Saviour, who mercifully spared and preserved me, when I was an apostate, a blasphemer, and an infidel, and delivered me from that state…into which my obstinate wickedness had plunged me; and Who has been pleased to admit me, though most unworthy, to preach His glorious gospel. I rely with humble confidence upon the atonement, and mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ, God and Man, which I have often proposed to others, as the only foundation whereupon a sinner can build his hope, trusting that He will guard and guide me through the uncertain remainder of my life, and that He will then admit me into His presence in His heavenly kingdom."
On his tombstone are these words:
"John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy."
While pastoring in Olney, John Newton composed 280 hymns, including what may be the best-known and most-beloved hymn of all time:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.