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Newton wrote the words from personal experience. He grew up without any particular religious conviction, but his life's path was formed by a variety of twists and coincidences that were often put into motion by others' reactions to what they took as his recalcitrant insubordination.
Ordained in the
With the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God, "Amazing Grace" is one of the most recognisable songs in the English-speaking world. Author
John Newton, 1778
In 1725, Newton was born in
As a youth, Newton began a pattern of coming very close to death, examining his relationship with God, then relapsing into bad habits. As a sailor, he denounced his faith after being influenced by a shipmate who discussed with him Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, a book by the
He began a career in slave trading.[b]
Newton often openly mocked the captain by creating obscene poems and songs about him, which became so popular that the crew began to join in. His disagreements with several colleagues resulted in his being starved almost to death, imprisoned while at sea, and chained like the slaves they carried. He was himself enslaved and forced to work on a plantation in the British colony
While aboard the ship Greyhound, Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery. In March 1748, while the Greyhound was in the North Atlantic, a violent storm came upon the ship that was so rough it swept overboard a crew member who was standing where Newton had been moments before.[d] After hours of the crew emptying water from the ship and expecting to be capsized, Newton and another mate tied themselves to the ship's pump to keep from being washed overboard, working for several hours. After proposing the measure to the captain, Newton had turned and said, "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!" Newton rested briefly before returning to the deck to steer for the next eleven hours. During his time at the wheel, he pondered his divine challenge.
About two weeks later, the battered ship and starving crew landed in
Newton's conversion was not immediate, but he contacted Polly's family and announced his intentions to marry her. Her parents were hesitant as he was known to be unreliable and impetuous. They knew he was profane, but they allowed him to write to Polly, and he set to begin to submit to authority for her sake. He sought a place on a slave ship bound for Africa, and Newton and his crewmates participated in most of the same activities he had written about before; the only immorality from which he was able to free himself was profanity. After a severe illness his resolve was renewed, yet he retained the same attitude towards slavery as was held by his contemporaries.[e] Newton continued in the slave trade through several voyages where he sailed up rivers in Africa – , now as a captain – , procured slaves being offered for sale in larger ports, and subsequently transported them to North America.
In between voyages, he married Polly in 1750, and he found it more difficult to leave her at the beginning of each trip. After three shipping voyages in the slave trade, Newton was promised a position as ship's captain with cargo unrelated to slavery. But at the age of thirty, he collapsed and never sailed again.[f]