By Bob Simpson, BCM/D Associate Director and Editor of BaptistLIFE
Over the past several months I have been reading an excellent new book entitled, “From Disgrace to Amazing Grace” by Jonathan Aitken. It chronicles the life and ministry of John Newton.
If you’re not sure about that name, John Newton was not the one who discovered gravity. That was Isaac Newton (no relation). John Newton was one of the eighteenth century England’s most influential Christians. His personal journey was one of the most remarkable ever lived. In one lifetime he went from slave ship captain to preacher to abolitionist. On his deathbed he said, “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior!”
His influence on 18th century England’s social conscience toward the disgrace of slavery cannot be overemphasized. This part of Newton’s journey is told in the recent movie “Amazing Grace” about John Wilberforce, Newton’s friend and member of Parliament. If you haven’t seen the movie, I would highly recommend that you see it.
The reason you know the name John Newton is probably because of the great hymns he wrote that include “How Sweet The Name of Jesus Sounds,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and the greatest hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.” Written over 238 years ago, “Amazing Grace” is still to this day the most sung hymn in the world. It is publically sung over a million times annually. It is also the most recorded song in the world. No other song, spiritual or secular, comes close in terms of number of recordings. It has been recorded over 3,000 times in the U.S. alone. In the 70’s singer Judy Collins recorded it and immediately found herself on the Top 30 Chart. In 2007, John Newton was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
“Amazing Grace” was conceived by Newton in late December 1772, as a part of his preparation for a New Year’s Day sermon on Jan. 1, 1773. Newton often used new hymns he had written as a unique way to communicate the points in his sermons. His goal was for everyone who sang his hymns to find them easy to sing, easy to understand and easy to commit to memory. He really succeeded with “Amazing Grace.” It is a masterpiece of clarity and simplicity. The entire hymn (which includes several more verses than are typically published or sung by congregations) has only 146 total words. 125 of them are only one-syllable words.
The text Newton used for that Jan. 1, 1773 sermon was I Chronicles 17:16-17. These are the opening words of the prayer that King David offered to God after Nathan the prophet had assured him of God’s promise that David’s descendents would be enthroned as kings of Israel forever. Nathan further told David that they would be blessed by a divine love that would never end. Astounded by this assurance of God’s promises, David prayed, “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house that You have brought me this far?”
Newton resonated with the obvious parallels between God’s grace to David and God’s grace to himself. Newton, like so many of the Biblical examples, clearly understood the grace “that saved a wretch like me.” He must have thought of David, the murderer and adulterer, and Peter, the traitor, and Paul, the persecutor. He was so grateful for grace that always, like water, flows down to the lowest point. Without that where would each of us be? Like Newton, I continue to be both amazed and grateful!