John Newton was an 18th-century slave trader who later became a clergyman and wrote one of the most beloved hymns of all time, “Amazing Grace.
While visiting friends in 1743, Newton was forcefully recruited into the Royal Navy through a common practice called “impressment,” where naval officers would seize men and force them to serve. Consequently, Newton became a midshipman, undergoing training on the HMS Harwich. However, after attempting to desert, he was dismissed from his post and subsequently sent aboard the Pegasus, a slave ship destined for West Africa.
In 1745, Newton had a falling out with the crew of Pegasus and was left in West Africa with a slave dealer named Amos Clowe. Clowe took Newton to the coast and gave him to his wife, Princess Peye, who kept him as her personal slave. Newton later referred to this period as a time when he was “once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa.” He was eventually rescued by a sea captain in early 1748 and returned to England on a merchant ship.
During his return voyage to England aboard the ship Greyhound, Newton experienced a profound spiritual awakening while at sea during a fierce storm. He later described this moment as a turning point in his life, saying that he felt the hand of God upon him and was saved from the storm’s fury.
But even that experience wasn’t enough to steer him away from the inhumane but lucrative slave trade business.
Newton returned in 1748 to Liverpool, a major port for the transatlantic Slave Trade. Partly due to the influence of his father’s friend Joseph Manesty, he obtained a position as first mate aboard the slave ship Brownlow, bound for the West Indies via the coast of Guinea.
After his return to England in 1750, he made three voyages as captain of the slave ships Duke of Argyle (1750) and African (1752–53 and 1753–54) sailing to West Africa to trade goods for enslaved Africans, whom he would transport to the Americas and the Caribbean to be sold into bondage.
Newton’s years as a slave trader were marked by cruelty and depravity. He was known for his harsh treatment of the slaves he transported and his disregard for their humanity.
After suffering a severe stroke in 1754, he gave up seafaring while continuing to invest in Manesty’s slaving operations.
Following his retirement from the slave trade, Newton became a Christian and later became a clergyman, serving as a pastor in various churches throughout his life. It was during his time as a clergyman that he wrote “Amazing Grace,” which has since become one of the most popular hymns in the world.
In 1788, 34 years after retiring from the slave trade, John Newton published a pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” in which he apologized for his involvement in the trade and described the horrific conditions of the slave ships. He became an ally of William Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the African slave trade and lived to see the passage of the Slave Act of 1807.
In the autumn of 1807, Newton’s health began to decline rapidly. He experienced severe pain and was often bedridden. His final days were marked by a deep sense of peace and a longing to be reunited with his wife, who had passed away many years earlier. Newton’s final words were reportedly, “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior.”
John Newton died on December 21, 1807, at the age of 82. He was buried in St. Mary Woolnoth Churchyard in London, where a plaque was later placed in his honour.