I’ll never forget the worn, deep blue hymnals that stood symmetrically
in our traditional Baptist church pew racks when I
was a boy. Before I reached puberty I had spent hundreds of
hours eyeing and using that sacred relic. When I was five
years old, the hymnal served as an ideal table for drawing
stick figures during our evangelistic preacher’s poetic sermons,
keeping me occupied so the grown-ups could absorb
the undisturbed conviction and instruction of God’s Word.
By eight, I could read well enough to follow along.
Our Sunday services, while fiercely nonliturgical, still followed
an equally predictable rhythm. So by the time I entered
my teen years, I could recall an impressive range of
lyrics from memory, enabling me to sing all four verses of the
most popular hymns without glancing down at a single page.
None was more familiar than “Amazing grace, how sweet
the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but
now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”
Like I did with most hymns, I sang along without giving
the person behind these lyrics much thought. I recall noticing
the name John Newton next to the title atop the page, followed
by the dates 1725–1807 indicating his birth and death.
But I assumed him a stoic hymn writer from two centuries
past with little influence beyond our Sunday morning routine.
It never occurred to me that the man who penned such famous
words had been one of the more influential figures in the history
of Christian faith and human rights. Nor did I have
any idea how an archaic church hymn I sang from memory
would connect to another, seemingly unrelated adolescent
In 1977, I stumbled upon an episode of a television show
I hadn’t planned to watch. At fourteen years old, I was probably
hoping to tune in The Six Million Dollar Man or some
other action favorite. Instead, I found myself entranced by
what would become one of the most popular series in television
history. Roots, based upon the book by Alex Haley, depicted
the story of Kunta Kinte, a young African taken from
his home and forced into slavery. I had learned about such
things from school textbooks. I even knew that British and
American ships loaded their hulls with men, women, and
children to carry them across the ocean and sell them into
servitude. But I had no conception of just how awful the experience
was for its victims. Roots opened my eyes and angered
I watched the formerly happy, playful Kinte caged like an
animal. I remember scenes from the hull where he and others
were packed side by side in unspeakable conditions, lying in
their own filth day after horrific day. I will never forget one
crew member trying to assuage the guilt feelings of his captain....
a man who had never before carried human
“cargo”....by saying it was better for heathen Africans to live
in a “Christian” nation, even if they must be dragged off as
slaves for the privilege. My stomach tightened and turned as
I wondered who could possibly use such a flimsy argument
to justify obvious evil. Many years later I would discover that
John Newton, the same man who had penned one of my
memorized hymns, ranked among those using such justification.
In fact, John Newton had made his living as the captain
of a British slave ship.
How could a man who participated in the capture and sale
of fellow human beings....a man who transported men,
women, and children in such awful conditions that many
died en route....end up two centuries later listed in my blue
hymnal as a celebrated Christian writer? Shouldn’t his sins
against humanity have disqualified him from such recognition?
What is the story behind such a remarkable dichotomy?
Much of this book is dedicated to that story, and the
God of amazing grace it reveals.
But we’ll also explore another story, one that may not have
occurred without Newton’s direct influence: the story of a
man named William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce, born thirty-four years after Newton, was
the politician who led a twenty-year battle in Parliament to
outlaw the British slave trade. Now the subject of a powerful
feature film, Wilberforce’s story ranks among the most
fascinating examples of God’s intervention in the lives of
ordinary, flawed people to accomplish His great work of
human redemption. And, as we will discover, part of that
great work includes a touching relationship between two
eighteenth-century men....one a former slave-ship captain
and the other, an influential British politician.
Redemption. What a beautiful word! The lost regained. The
ruined restored. The sick healed. The broken repaired. The
enslaved set free. It is a concept at the heart of Christian religion.
God did not passively wait for us to get our act together
after the Fall. Refusing to leave sinful, hurting humanity to
wallow in its misery, He took the initiative, providing a means
of redemption for His lost children and restoration for a damaged
Eighteenth-century Britain, the world into which Newton
and Wilberforce were born, desperately needed the Almighty’s
intervention. A spiritual apathy and intellectually
eviscerated religion had overtaken the church, leading many
to abandon belief in God’s direct involvement in human
affairs. Sure, they still believed He had created the world and
established certain guidelines. But only the “uneducated
rabble” seemed to take such unsophisticated notions as personal
sin, repentance, and salvation seriously. As a result, the
church’s influence as a preserving salt diminished....leaving
the poor and enslaved to suffer at the hands of uncaring,
Into such a world an emerging movement now called
“evangelicalism” was born. It began in the early 1730s on the
campus of Lincoln College in Oxford when four young men
began meeting together weekly to read the Greek New Testament
and discuss the beliefs and practices of the early
church. The movement....led by John and Charles Wesley....
attracted the attention and loyalty of believers hoping
to recover a religion that could inspire more than social pretense
and Sunday yawns. The Wesleys, George Whitefield,
and others gave birth to what has been called “The Great
Awakening”....a revival of sincere belief and spiritual passion
in England and America that prompted men and
women from all walks of life to take the tenets of Christianity
seriously, and as a result, to revolutionize their world.
Both John Newton and William Wilberforce embraced a
particularly evangelical Christianity. Each experienced a radical
conversion....one from the profane life of a slave-ship
captain, the other from the skeptical arrogance of a wealthy
sophisticate. Each believed in personal sin and repentance.
And each considered God’s intervention in his life to include
purposes beyond personal salvation. It included the call to
play some part in extending God’s amazing grace to others in
need of redemption.
As with earlier titles in our Finding God series, this book
derives inspiration from specific scenes of a great story. Previously,
we discovered the theology of writers like J. R. R.
Tolkien and C. S. Lewis bubbling up through their wonderful
fantasy literature. In this edition, we explore how the
real-life drama and writings of two great men provide insights
for our own spiritual journeys. Just as the happenings
of Middle-earth and Narnia reveal something of their creators,
scenes from the lives of Newton and Wilberforce tell
us something about the Author of history, and how His
providential pen scripted scenes more intriguing than the
most spectacular fiction.
We hope this book will not replace the experience of
reading the actual writings or full biographies of Newton
and Wilberforce. We simply wish to enhance appreciation
and application of the truths that defined their influence.
Each chapter opens by re-creating a scene that touches
some aspect of God’s intervention in and beyond their
lives. While this exercise required some imaginative speculation,
every chapter is inspired and informed by actual
events from the lives and influence of John Newton and/or
It has been nearly three decades since I sat in my small Baptist
church and held that old blue hymnal. My new liturgy includes
a modern projection system and simple choruses too
easily remembered. But one old hymn has survived the
ever-changing litany of church worship music. We continue
singing it as a deeply embedded part of the evangelical
ethos....a movement that invaded apathetic churches when
they needed to move beyond personal comfort and reputation
to rescue the victims of an unjust world. That song continues
to remind us that God does indeed intervene in
human affairs, redeeming the lost and rescuing the outcast. It
is a song that, like the lives of Newton and Wilberforce,
points us toward a God of Amazing Grace.
O Lord, truly I am Your servant;
I am Your servant, the son of
Your maidservant; You have
loosed my bonds.
Little John Newton, six years old, hoisted himself up in his
chair, leaned across the table, and stared out the parlor window
at the sunlight dancing on the surface of the Thames.
Away flew his thoughts, beyond the river and the estuary,
over the wide world, to the dim and distant figure of his father,
a stern-faced man in a merchant-captain’s coat, cresting
the blue Mediterranean swells at the wheel of his ship.
“What are God’s works of providence?”
John turned at the sound of his mother’s voice, gentle but
insistent at his side. A dog-eared copy of The Westminster
Shorter Catechism lay open in her lap.
“What are God’s works of providence?” she repeated,
glancing up at him.
The boy brushed the hair from his eyes. Then he blinked,
rubbed his nose, and grinned. She gave him an encouraging
“God’s works of providence,” he ventured, brightening beneath
her smile, “are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving
and governing of all His creatures, and all their actions.”
“Good!” she beamed. “And what special act of providence
did God exercise towards man in the estate wherein he
John bit his lip and frowned. “I’m sorry, Mother,” he said,
his father’s grim and serious face flashing before his mind’s
eye. “I guess I haven’t learned that one yet.”
“No matter,” she said, hooking a finger under his chin and
lifting his face up to her own. “You shall learn it tomorrow!
But can you remember the song we sang together yesterday?”
“Oh, yes!” he said, clapping his hands. “Let’s sing it
She lifted him into her lap, and the fresh, clean smell of
her white linen apron and blue taffeta skirts filled his nostrils.
He snuggled close to her and they began:
Let children hear the mighty deeds which God performed of old;
Which in our younger years we saw, and which our fathers told.
“Another!” he shouted when they had finished. “Can we sing
“Why not?” she said, taking another book from the table....
The Hymns and Psalms of the Reverend Isaac Watts. “Can you
read this?” she asked, holding it up in front of him.
“O God,” he said, squinting at the page, “our Help in ages
past, our Hope for years to come, Our Shelter from the
stormy blast, and our eternal Home.”
From somewhere on the street below came the laughter and
shouts of neighborhood children. They were loud and exuberant
at their play, but John never heard their calls. He was too
full of the scent of his mother, too enraptured with the words
of the song as it rose and fell on the gentle waves of her voice.
He was in his own personal heaven.
“If the foundations are destroyed,” says David in the eleventh
Psalm, “what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). It’s a
question well worth pondering.
But suppose the foundations are not destroyed. Suppose
that, on the contrary, they are laid deep in the hidden bedrock
of the unchanging grace of God. Suppose that they are
so well established and so painstakingly constructed that
they stand unshaken despite the ravages of time and tide and
chance. What then?
In that case, the righteous can hope to do all things
(Philippians 4:13). In that case, we can expect the blind to
see, the lame to walk, and the dead to live again. Best of all,
we can look forward to the happy spectacle of prodigals
coming home to the house built firm upon the Rock.
The story of the Reverend John Newton is the story of a beloved
son, errant blasphemer, slave of slaves, and preacher of the
everlasting gospel. It’s a story that ends well because it begins
well....in spite of a bleak and disastrous “middle passage.”
We don’t want to miss that good beginning. It’s absolutely
essential to everything that follows. Because for all its
subsequent sordidness and sorrow, our narrative starts with a
tender, touching scene: a child on his mother’s knee, singing
hymns and reciting verses from the Bible. An unlikely point
of departure, perhaps, for a foul-mouthed sailor and a dealer
in human flesh.
Elizabeth Newton, by her son’s own account, was “a pious
experienced Christian”1....a woman whose life was built
around a solid vertical core. She was a genuine believer whose
knowledge of God went deeper than mere doctrinal orthodoxy
and whose experience of the Savior’s love was warm and immediate
and inextricably interwoven with the details of everyday
That in itself simply had to rub off on young John. No
doubt it would have even if his mother had never said a word
to him about it. There is, after all, a great deal of truth in the
old maxim that faith is more effectively caught than taught. But
Mrs. Newton wasn’t the kind to be content with such assurances.
No; she personally directed every aspect of her son’s
education. She saw to it that the seeds of God’s righteousness,
truth, and mercy were planted deep in the soil of his
soul from the earliest moments of childhood.
And so, almost from the time her son could speak, Mrs.
Newton began to teach him. She took his training firmly in
hand with enthusiasm, devotion, and fervent prayer. The results
were impressive. At three her boy was already learning
to read. By four he had practically mastered the skill. At five
he was memorizing Scripture, enduring the rigors of the Catechism,
and filling his mind with the words and melodies of
the hymns of Isaac Watts. By six he was ready to embark on
the study of Latin. And all because of the industry and care
of a loving mother whose heart’s desire was that her son
might someday serve the Lord as a minister of the Word.
But then tragedy struck. Elizabeth died before John
turned seven, the victim of her own weak constitution and
the ravages of consumption (or tuberculosis), one of the
deadliest and most feared maladies of the day. As a result, by
the time John was twenty-one, his closest companions would
have been hard pressed to detect even the slightest traces of
his mother’s influence upon him. Among other things, anger
at God over her death drove him to abandon the path she
had taught him to tread. But that, as we shall see, wasn’t to be
the end of the story.
Though in young manhood, Newton did his level best to
“sin away” every last vestige of these early impressions, he never
fully succeeded. “They returned again and again,” he tells us,
“and it was very long before I could wholly shake them off; and
when the Lord at length opened my eyes, I found a great benefit
from the recollection of them.”2 In other words, Mrs. Newton’s
chickens eventually came home to roost.
The well-worn and oft-quoted words of Proverbs 22:6
immediately come to mind: “Train up a child in the way he
should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” It
is true, of course, that many godly parents have suffered
greatly because of their wayward sons’ and daughters’ ill
choices. As wise as this saying may be, it doesn’t necessarily
mean it’s an unqualified promise or absolute guarantee. But
neither should the life-giving principle it conveys be too easily
dismissed. It does, after all, make a very real difference how
a child is raised. Moses acknowledged this in his instructions
to the people of Israel:
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them
when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie
down, and when you rise up. Deuteronomy 6:6-7
It needs to be said that, allowing for anomalies and departures
from the rule, this kind of investment generally yields a
rich dividend, a dividend that can manifest itself in surprising
ways. Consider the case of young Samuel, whose course
in life was fixed when his mother Hannah “lent him to the
Lord” (1 Samuel 1:28); or Timothy, whose “genuine faith
. . . dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother
Eunice” (2 Timothy 1:5). We know that God can use anyone
or anything to draw hearts to Himself and prepare a pathway
for His people. And yet there is no substitute for the tender
affections of a godly mother. Newton himself felt this
keenly: “[My father] was a man of remarkable good sense,
and great knowledge of the world; he took great care of my
morals, but could not supply my mother’s part.”
“In the Torah,” observes Chaya Saskonin, a member of
Brooklyn’s Lubavitch Jewish Community, “women are
called akeret ha-bayit, the foundation of the home. That
doesn’t mean washing dishes. It means educating our children
in everything we think about life. That’s the nature of
what a mother is.”
And so it is. It’s also the nature of the God who made
mothers; the God who weaves each one of us together in the
womb (Psalm 139:13) and shelters us under His wings like a
brooding hen (Psalm 17:8; Matthew 23:37). This is the
same God who, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, both gives
and takes away: the God who granted John Newton an excellent
parent for his early spiritual upbringing, only to remove
her from his life at an unexpected hour. It seemed a cruel
blow. But the upshot was that John, in the fullness of time,
became “an unusual proof of His patience, providence, and
No wonder they call that grace “amazing.”