John Newton was born in London, England, July 24, 1725, and died there December 21, 1807. He occupied an unique position among the founders of the Evangelical School, due as much to the romance of his young life and the striking history of his conversion, as to his force of character. His mother, a pious Dissenter, stored his childish mind with Scripture, but died when he was seven years old. At the age of eleven, after two years' schooling, he went to sea with his father. His life at sea teems with wonderful escapes, vivid dreams and sailor recklessness. He grew into an abandoned and godless sailor. The religious fits of his boyhood, changed into settled infidelity, through the study of infidel writings, and the instruction of one of his comrades. Disappointing repeatedly the plans of his father, he was flogged as a deserter from the navy, and for fifteen months lived, half-starved and ill-treated, in abject degradation under a slave-dealer in Africa. The one restraining influence of his life was his faithful love for his future wife, Mary Catlett, formed when he was seventeen, and she only in her fourteenth year.
A chance reading of Thomas à Kempis sowed the seed of his conversion; which quickened under the solemn contemplations of a night spent in steering a water-logged vessel in the face of apparent death in 1748. He was then twenty-three. The six following years, during which he commanded a slave ship, matured his Christian belief. Nine years more, spent chiefly at Liverpool, in fellowship with Whitefield, Wesley, and Nonconformists, in exercises of devotion and occasional preaching among the Dissenters, elapsed before his ordination to the pastorate of Olney, in 1764.
The Olney period was the most fruitful of his life. His zeal in pastoral visiting, preaching and prayer-meetings was unwearied. He formed his lifelong friendship with Cowper, and became the spiritual father of Thomas Scott the commentator. At Olney his best works—Omicron's Letters (1774); Olney Hymns (1779); Cardiphonia, published 1781—were composed. He later moved to London (1780-1807), in the center of the Evangelical movement, and his zeal was as ardent as before. In 1805, when no longer able to read his text, his reply when pressed to discontinue preaching, was, "What, shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak!"
The story of his sins and his conversion was the base of his influence; but it would have been little but for the vigor of his mind, his warm heart, Christian candor, tolerance, and piety. His renown as a guide in experimental religion made him the center of a host of inquirers, with whom he maintained patient, loving, and judicious correspondence, of which a monument remains in his beautiful letters.
As a hymn-writer, his rich acquaintance with Scripture, knowledge of the heart, directness and force, and a vivid imagination, show strongly. His most characteristic hymns are those which depict in the language of intense humiliation his mourning for the abiding sins of his regenerate life, coincident with the never-failing conviction of acceptance in the Beloved. This feeling may be seen in the speeches, writings, and diaries of his whole life.