“Faith’s Review and Expectation” (or “Why I’m Glad My Name Isn’t John Newton”)

I want you to know, before you start reading this, I meant to write a brief essay on my feelings of the lyric quoted below.  It is so powerful, and has put so much in perspective in my life. However, when I began researching the roots of Amazing Grace, this entire thing turned upside down. I tried to recount the story to my husband last night, and was informed it sounded like an episode of Drunk History on Comedy Central.  Take what you will from it, as it’s simply a collection of thoughts on my research from a fair number of (sometimes non-parallel) resources.  I encourage you to do your own research on John Newton, as he has a fairly amazing story to tell you. -Brandi


The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God, Who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Have you ever heard those words before? I’ve no doubt you’ve probably heard the rest of the lyrics to Amazing Grace. You see, this:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Than when we’d first begun.

was not actually part of John Newton’s song when he first wrote the hymn. The lyrics, about the Earth dissolving like snow, were later lost and replaced with these (also beautiful) words around 100 years later, in 1852, by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the work of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

John didn’t really need anyone to fill in for him, though.  He had plenty to write about on his own.

John Newton had a fairly terrible existence for much of his life. He was a miserable individual from the get-go.  First, his mama died before his 7th birthday (tuberculosis) and John was left to live with the Catletts, family friends (this was probably the highlight of his childhood), while his father was away. John’s dad was out for years at a time on ships, on which John would eventually join him at the age of 11. After sailing with him for some time, his daddy (retiring from the sea, and now remarried to someone who wasn’t all that fond of John) made plans for John to go work in a sugar factory in Jamaica.  I’m all for vacationing in Jamaica, but I cannot imagine being told at 17 years old that I was going to be sent to Jamaica to work in a sugar factory. Admittedly, I’ve not researched how normal this might have been in the 1700s or what the working conditions were but, apparently, John didn’t believe this to be what he wanted to do. So, he missed his ship to Jamaica. #alwayslatetotheparty

His father was less than pleased.

The Library of Congress notes that, growing up, Newton had several Final Destination-ish experiences.

“On one occasion, he was thrown from a horse, narrowly missing impalement on a row of sharp stakes. Another time, he arrived too late to board a tender that was carrying his companions to tour a warship; as he watched from the shore, the vessel overturned, drowning all its passengers. Years later, on a hunting expedition in Africa on a moonless night, he and his companions got lost in a swamp. Just when they had resigned themselves to death, the moon appeared and they were able to return to safety. Such near-death were commonplace in Newton’s life.”

A year after joining the merchant ship, he is press-ganged into the Royal Navy. At one point, still not liking the paths being dictated to him, John says “Later, y’all” (or the like) and tries to leave…and not come back.  Of course, he didn’t exactly have permission to not come back, and was labeled a deserter. Oh, and he absolutely got caught. More than 300 people watched as he received his punishment. He was flogged nearly 100 times, and demoted to common seaman. However, considering it was an offense due a hanging, he got off pretty light.

Things seem pretty bleak for John at this point. Undoubtedly, he probably wondered how life could get any worse (it would).  Taking his life into his own hands, he considers killing the captain of the ship and then committing suicide. He decided against it, and transferred to another ship- a slave ship called Pegasus.  This begins John’s very long history in slave trading.

The Library of Congress says,”Merchants believed that trafficking in human trade was justified since slavery was permitted in the Bible as long as slaves were treated with dignity and kindness.” At this point in life, though, John didn’t excel in the art of making friends and influencing people. I’m not even referring to the people taken captive; I’m talking about his shipmates. What could he possibly do to make himself so endeared? Well, for starters, John never let his creativity go to waste. He liked to write obscene poems and songs about the captain, and make them open enough that the other crew members joined in with him. He was also the equivalent of that one guy, in every office, who has to argue about EVERYTHING (if you don’t know who I’m talking about, do a self-check). So, his shipmates nearly starved him to death, then they shackled him up with the slaves they were trading…then they outright abandoned him. In South Africa (Sierra Leone). With a slave dealer.

You might like to stop here and pretend that John made friends with the slave dealer, Amos Clowe. That Amos took him under his wing, and together they discovered Jesus and lived happily ever after.

That’s not at all what happened.

When he contracted malaria (because why not, at this point), Amos gave John (as property) to his wife, Princess Peye (I didn’t add the Princess in for effect). John served as an abused slave since he wasn’t able to travel with Amos, and the irony wasn’t lost on him. He was quoted as saying he was “once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa.”

John (now 23) was rescued by a sea captain after his Pop received a letter from Newton regarding his circumstances. He was finally headed back to England. Not even 25 years old, and everything that could go wrong basically had.


Minus the part where his ship nearly sinks.

Ol’ John developed quite a reputation on the Greyhound, the ship on which he’d been rescued.  I’m pretty sure the phrase “cuss like a sailor” was coined just for him. Bernard Martin writes, “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.” That’s right.  Normal terrible language wasn’t bad enough.  HBO couldn’t even handle this guy, because he made up his OWN words to “exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.” I love that term.  “Verbal debauchery.” He was known to other sailors as “The Great Blasphemer.”

Trying to get back to England, off the coast of Ireland, there is a huge storm in the middle of the night.  The ship begins to fill with water, and John is wide awake. I guess that’s an understatement.  John was actually up and tied to the pump of the ship to keep from being washed overboard. Did I mention he couldn’t swim? He couldn’t swim. One crew member hadn’t thought of that, yet, and didn’t make it home (in fact, John had been standing where that man had stood just moments before he was washed away). He calls out to God, saying “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” and is reportedly met with a miracle; the cargo of the ship shifted and covered. the. hole. Not a man to miss a sign from God, John realizes now might be a good time to start catching up on this whole religion thing. He’d been reading Christian literature and, while steering the ship for the next 11 hours, begins to ponder whether or not he could even be met by God’s mercy. He had, not long before, called God a myth and denounced the religion. By the time he got home, he had accepted Christianity…but not full Christianity. Sort of Christianity light. Like the diet version, where you pick all the good stuff out of your salad and leave the tomatoes. In the words of his hymn, this was “the hour [he] first believed.”

It strikes me as odd that he didn’t give up on the slave trade (uh…empathetic much?) at this point, but he was allegedly a lot nicer to them.

Surely that counts for something.

I guess. I don’t know. This whole part actually makes me face palm and squint a little bit.

After he gets home, John gets back to slave trading. Apparently, he was trying to secure some financial security because he wanted to marry Mary “Polly” Catlett (yep, same set of Catletts from the beginning of our story. They’d been in love since he was 17 and she was 14 though he was way more into it than she was).  He begins to captain his own ship bringing slaves to North America and, in between voyages, he gets married to Mary after 3 proposals. 1750 to be exact. Actually, remember when he missed his boat to Jamaica AND deserted the Royal Navy and got his tail handed to him? The whole reason he was late, and deserted, was to go see Mary. Women, amirite? She was also the reason he was determined to get home from where he had been held captive. These two are like a real life Allie and Noah (The Notebook), but not.

Let’s see. What are we missing? Miserable living, public humiliation, slavery…oh! I know.  John still has his health! Right? No.

In 1754, at the age of 30,John suffers a stroke, collapses and lets go of slave trading…except, he still invested in slaving operations because John kind of appears to be a slow learner. Bless his heart.  He never sailed again, though. Instead, he worked in the Customs office, where he began to feel the call of ministry.

10 years later, in June of 1764, John is finally ordained as a minister. He had been after this for 7 years, but didn’t have a degree. He applied EVERYWHERE. Methodists, Presbyterians, Independents… he just wanted to spread the word of God. Apparently, he was pretty darn good at it, because he had quite the following.  His preaching was unique, because he had a lot of stories to tell from his own life experiences. I find myself drawn to preachers who can illustrate their sermons with applicability. I guess these folks felt the same way.  He may have been a little rough around the edges, but the man knew how to connect with people. I read a quote that said he stated his mission was to  “break a hard heart and to heal a broken heart”.  Whoa.

It took 34 years, but John finally came around. He published a pamphlet entitled Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, where he talked about how awful slavery was. If anyone knew how to get a point across about it, I guess John was the man for the job. He even lived to see the British passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, when King George III declared it to be law. In an essay, Newton said, “I hope [slavery] will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me . . . that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”.

And now, we come to the part where John makes the name for himself that we remember. John the Hymnist, if you will. Even if you don’t, I’m rolling with it. It was 1779 (happy 3rd birthday, America!) when  “Faith’s Review and Expectation”  was published in the Olney Hymns (a collaboration with William Cowper, who deserves his own story).  “Faith’s Review and Expectation” sounds familiar right? No? You and I call it by another name. Amazing Grace. “Faith’s Review and Expectation” was written as a poem in 1772, and may not have had music, originally. It wasn’t until 1835 (in America) that it was paired with “New Britain”  and sung the way we traditionally hear it today.

In 1790, Mary passed away. At this point, John was 65 years old, and they’d been married for 40 years. Newton, himself, died in 1807 at the age of 82.  Needless to say, he was not lacking in stories to share.  The man had quite the history. His last words were quoted to be, “I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon.”

Surely, however, John never imagined Amazing Grace would take on the life it has, even making it as far as being sung by Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock in 1969. To a first responder family, Amazing Grace can trigger a lot of emotions. Pair it with bagpipes and our blood will run cold, as it is heard that way at a line of duty death funeral. Though it wasn’t really well known when it was written, it is now estimated that Amazing Grace is sung 10 million times a year.

And, therein, lies my crazy (scant) outline of the life of John Newton. There are a lot of details from his childhood and sailing years that I didn’t include here, though I highly encourage you to get to know him, yourself. I’ve no doubt you’ll come to understand why, to John, grace was truly amazing.

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” -John Newton


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bob Merrrit
    Jul 01, 2015 @ 23:43:44

    I enjoyed this post very much, Newton understood God’s grace.


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