Wineskins Archive

January 27, 2014

Book Review: John Newton – From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Sep-Dec 2007)

Filed under: — @ 2:20 pm and

by Brian Thomas

I have been involved with church music ministries for the last 15 years, and I don’t think that six weeks have past without either performing, or being asked to perform the most popular hymn ever written: Amazing Grace. This song has been featured in almost every hymn collection published since its inception, and as of today, itunes has 150 different versions available for download.* With such popularity you would think the hymn’s enigmatic writer, John Newton, would be more celebrated today.

I hope that will change with a new biography written by Jonathan Aitken entitled, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Like most people, I knew Newton was a seafaring slave trader in his younger years and that he had a remarkable conversion experience at sea during a terrible storm, but I didn’t realize that his life was the kind of epic adventure you would normally associate with a Cecil B. Demille movie.

Aitken’s biography is one of the most compelling historical books I’ve had the pleasure to read. It is thorough, well researched without being dry, and written by a man who knows something about “being lost but found,” since Jonathan Aitken became a believer while serving time in prison for perjury in an infamous London trial. Throughout the pages of Newton’s life you are confronted with a man that knew the depth of his sin, but by God’s grace, lived to preach, write and sing about God’s forgiving grace found in Jesus Christ.

Newton was brought up by a very devoted Christian mother who catechized him, prayed with him, and forced him to memorize scripture until he was six, when she died of tuberculosis. His father, however, was a very distant and stern sea captain. Young Newton rebelled and from the period of his teenage years onward began to fight against all authority figures, often becoming his own worst enemy. By the time he reached the age of 11, his father felt he was ready to begin his career at sea, and Newton’s journey from a young seaman, to gang-pressed navy midshipman, to slave trader, to becoming one of the most influential evangelical preachers of his day began.

As a husband, friend, and pastor, Jonathan Aitken, lets you come face to face with Newton himself, since much of the book is taken from Newton’s own personal journals, which were extremely detailed, warm, and just plain authentic. It becomes painfully obvious why he had such a profound impact upon the stoic religion of his day. Although Newton was an extraordinary scholar who taught himself Greek, Hebrew and Latin, he was able to preach, pray and write songs for worship that the common man could relate to. He didn’t put on any airs, and attempted to give dignity to the lost, the least, and the last through his pastoral ministry. When his autobiography became a best seller, it just confirmed his popularity with the average working man. “Here is a man of God who knows what it is like to struggle with the flesh and temptation, and yet finds forgiveness, grace and mercy in the Lord,” said many a dockworker.

While his life was far too multi-faceted and interesting to recount it all in this review, I will mention three things that jumped out at me that I think the present church can learn from:

He was ecumenical. John Newton had a rough road to ordination in the Church of England. It took him six years of toil, because of his fondness for the preaching and evangelical leanings (enthusiasm) of George Whitefield and John Wesley. Newton was close friends with Independents, Presbyterians, Methodists, Dissenters, and Baptists. He worshiped with them often, and had no difficulty preaching from their pulpits. In fact, when he was finally ordained and given a pastorate, all the surrounding non-Anglican churches and clergy soon welcomed him, and sought to collaborate in various ministries for the betterment of the city and its people. This didn’t mean he was soft on scripture. He held firmly to his beliefs, but was able to find common ground with brothers from different traditions to further the Kingdom.

He was progressive. John Newton created many church practices that had not been a part of regular ministry in his day. He created a weekly prayer meeting that grew so large he had to utilize the great house of Lord Dartmouth (his benefactor). He created a children’s ministry (unheard of before this) that met weekly to pray, sing and learn from the Bible. He wrote songs for them to sing that would help them memorize scripture. This ministry had such a profound impact upon the countryside of Olney that many churches sent their children to this ministry. At its height it grew to 200 children! Today this may seem normal, but it was a radical invention for his day. In the established church, it was very uncommon to hear hymns in public worship. Psalms may have been chanted as part of the liturgy, but new songs set to well known melodies and accompanied in a simple fashion were considered very low-brow by 18th century English standards. Newton, along with his troubled friend and poet, William Cowper, wrote several hundred hymns in the common vernacular that were simple to sing, easy to memorize, and yet profoundly theological and deep. They were not written for the erudite elite, but for the people in his pews. He saw music as a powerful learning tool. He took Paul’s words to “admonish and teach one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” seriously, and the church has not been the same since. Newton thought “outside the box” before the phrase had a chance to become cliché.

He was proactive. Though not an immediate movement of his ministry, as he continued to grow in grace, Newton became heavily involved in the abolition of slavery and many other causes by mentoring and encouraging Christians involved in government, trade, and social welfare; viewing the Gospel not only as the means of salvation, but in the broader sense of seeing it as the A to Z of life, which includes the restoration of human dignity.

Much more could be said about the amazing journey of John Newton, but I’ll just recommend you pick-up a copy of Aitken’s biography, snuggle up in a comfy chair, and take the time to get to know the man himself. There is great wisdom to be learned from the dead guys. I’ll leave you with the words he was quick to state whenever he had a chance: “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior.

*Two of them are mine since I’ve recorded it twice. One can be found under the band, Bezalel, while the second can be found on my solo album, Tales of Thomas: Hymns Revisited and Remixed.New Wineskins

Brian ThomasBrian Thomas is the Director of Worship and the Arts for Kaleo Church in San Diego, CA. and is attending the Londen Institute Graduate School of Ministry. He also owns and operates the missional worship label, [Semper Reformanda Records].

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