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John Newton

John 3:14-21

The gospel reading today from John is surely one of the best known, most loved passages from the Bible. So what can any preacher say that people will not have heard or thought before? And especially, how to make these words real and meaningful, how to demonstrate that their reality can be seen in a human life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John Newton was born in Wapping, London in 1725, the son of Elizabeth and John Newton Snr. Elizabeth died of tuberculosis (then called consumption) in July 1732, when John was only six years old. The motherless boy then spent two years at boarding school before going to live in Aveley in Essex, the home of his father's new wife. 

On his eleventh birthday he first went to sea with his father, where, not surprisingly he seemed to be a disturbed young man and soon became what we would now call a teenage rebel. On his father’s retirement there was a possibility of John being able to choose a different course in life, but in 1743, while going to visit friends, Newton was captured and pressganged into the naval service by the Royal Navy as a midshipman. His rebellious nature did not make life easy for him. At one point Newton tried to desert and was punished in front of the crew of 350. Stripped to the waist and tied to the grating, he received a flogging of eight dozen lashes and was reduced to the rank of a common seaman. 

Following that disgrace and humiliation, Newton initially contemplated murdering the captain and committing suicide by throwing himself overboard. Later he transferred to a slave ship bound for West Africa, to trade for the slaves who would be shipped to the colonies in the Caribbean and North America. He came close to starvation while living in extreme poverty in Sierra Leone during this troubled period of his life.

For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

In March 1748, at the age of twenty three, John Newton was on board a cargo ship which was fighting for its life against heavy seas and rough weather. Worn out with pumping and almost frozen, he called out for God’s mercy at the height of the storm. He was amazed to be saved from almost certain death. This amazement at the undeserved yet freely given love of God is reflected in one of the much loved hymns later penned by John Newton. 

Sing: 129 Amazing Grace

Despite his lack of education John Newton had a gift for language and a talent for verse. This was not always put to good use. In his early days on board ship, he taught the rest of the crew a song he had composed; what the lyrics said about the captain, his character, his family and his ship, was unprintable- like most of Newton’s general conversation at the time.

Another captain under whom he served was so appalled by Newton’s constant blasphemy that when the weather turned stormy, he was convinced that he had a Jonah on board. John Newton came very close to being thrown overboard to appease the deity! 

His conversion brought about startling changes for Newton. His mouth, as well as his life in general had a spring clean! His gift for choice words had become completely redirected. He now used the name of Jesus in a new way. Not only was it no longer a curse, it now became the sweetest word of his life.

Sing: 223 How sweet the name

Early in his sea faring life Newton had become involved in the African slave-trade. During the many twists and turns of his early life experiences he had seen at first hand much greed and inhumanity. He had also seen the pain and despair of the innocent victims of the ingrained belief in the superiority of the white races at the root of this practice. Although he continued working in the slave trade for a number of years, eventually Newton was confronted with the inescapable incompatibility of support of slavery with his Christian beliefs. 

And this is the judgement , that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

John Newton renounced his involvement with slave-trading and, at thirty-nine, became an ordained cleric in the Anglican church. He became a prominent supporter of abolitionism. He persuaded the young William Wilberforce to stay in politics when he was wavering about his life’s direction, and then joined him in the fight to abolish the slave trade. He lived to see Britain’s abolition of the African slave trade in 1807. 

He who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

Today we usually expect to sing a number of hymns during a church service. But 200 years ago it was different. Only the psalms were seen as appropriate music to be sung in churches. John Newton played an important part in the battle to have the singing of hymns accepted in church. While in Liverpool, he and his wife Mary would often spend an hour on Sunday evenings praying and singing with friends. In his first parish as a minister, at Olney in Buckinghamshire the Newtons continued this practice of an evening meeting which included hymn singing. The venue they were using soon became too small and they had to look for larger premises. And on Sundays, Newton’s ministry attracted so many to services that a gallery had to be built in the church to make room for everybody! The world was ready for a new musical dimension to their services of worship. It was at one of Newtons week-night meetings where this hymn was first sung

Sing: 446 Glorious things of thee are spoken 

If any of you use the resource With Love to the World as part of your daily devotions you may remember the commentator exploring the question of ‘grace’ including the question of why Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” is so popular even with people who don’t identify with the church. Grace: the unexpected, unearned and undeserved love of God, by which we are saved through faith, surely part of the good news. May we be true witnesses to the wonderful truth, that God so loved the world.


Narelle Sellar

Narelle Sellar is a retired children’s services director, and teacher. Narelle is a member of Canberra City congregation of the Uniting Church. As a long term lay preacher Narelle regularly leads worship services in a range of venues, and has also regularly supported TUC when we have been in need of preaching assistance.