“Each one should use whatever gift he has been given to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:10
If John Newton had lived during the 21st Century he would have made a great blogger and, I’m sure, made the New York Times Best Sellers List with his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton.
Jonathan Aitken, a present-day Newton biographer, describes his story as being ‘renowned as one of the most sensational, sinful, spiritual, romantic, influential and historically important sagas of the eighteenth century.’
As a youth Newton was wild, angry and had no regard for authority. His poor choices and lack of respect for others continually got him into trouble. It started when his mother died when he was six. She had taken him to church and taught him scriptures. Without her influence John hung out with some pretty rough boys. By the age of 11 he went to sea with his father, where he learned every foul word known to man.
By 18 Newton was pressed into service by the Royal Navy but continually disrespected his captain, deserted, and then was caught and flogged. The captain soon exchanged him for a seaman on a ship headed for Africa.
So, by the age of 21, Newton was a seasoned slaver on the coast of Sierra Leone, dabbling in African witchcraft and women. Then, suddenly, the tables turned and the slave trader found himself a slave of an African princess, until rescued by a British captain sent by his father.
On the voyage back to England he was lazy, rude and a complete thorn in his rescuer’s side. He turned common sea chanteys into songs that ridiculed the captain and his Christian faith. In fact, Newton considered himself an atheist and blasphemed God at every opportunity.
“I was exceedingly vile,” he said. “I not only sinned with a high hand myself but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.”
Until, that is, the ship met a violent storm and was in danger of sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was in such bad condition that there wasn’t much hope of anyone surviving and before he caught himself, John told the captain there was no hope, except for the mercy of God. For the first time in fifteen years he prayed.
Much to John’s surprise, and everyone else on board, the ship survived the voyage.
So, began a slow transformation in the heart of a blaspheming wretch who opened his heart and mind to the possibility that there is a God who hears and answers prayer.
After this, John slowly began praying and reading his Bible – while at the same time transporting slaves from Africa to the West Indies! John went back to what he knew. This was business and had nothing to do with his growing Christian faith. Slavery was an everyday part of the British economy. It was as entrenched in 18th Century culture as going to Tim Horton’s or Starbucks is for you and me.
By the age of 25 he married his childhood sweetheart and became captain of his own slave ship. Over the next four years he transported hundreds of African men, women and children to the auction blocks of the West Indies. Though he was known for treating his ‘cargo’ with more dignity than other slave ship captains, his conscience didn’t stop him.
However, his health did.
A mysterious illness seized him and it was recommended that, at the age of 29, he retire from the sea. This began a whole new chapter in the life of John Newton.
His love for God and the Bible grew and so did his desire to hear from men of God, like George Whitefield and John Wesley. From Wesley’s preaching he realized that the slave trade grieved the heart of God and for the first time Newton’s conscience was pricked.
By the time he reached his 30’s he was being asked to share his testimony in churches. He studied the Bible more and more and became a gifted speaker with a message about God’s grace for sinners. He felt drawn to ministry and applied for ordination to the Church of England, but was turned down – for six years! Yet John never gave up.
He was finally ordained at the age of 39.
His preaching was quite unorthodox for he shared the gospel in the vernacular of the time, often using common seafaring terms. He made the gospel understandable to farmer, merchant and nobleman; even using his ‘lyrical’ abilities to teach his congregation Biblical truths by writing hymns, like Amazing Grace. To encourage others, he compiled them into a hymnal, called Olney Hymns, which churches used for generations.
When he published his auto-biography in 1764 it became a huge success. John definitely had a gift. Since letter writing was the predominant way people in the 18th Century communicated, he was always corresponding with others to encourage their faith. His letters were compiled into books that became very popular.
Today I’m sure he would have his own blog post and Twitter followers.
Yet, one of John Newton’s greatest impacts was with a pamphlet he wrote, using his slave trading journals, called Thoughts on the African Slave Trade. He was 63 when it was published. As soon as it was printed William Wilberforce sent it to every member of the British privy council so they could read for themselves the horrors of the trade. It changed how English citizens viewed slavery as they read his stories of the cruelty involved in trading human lives. This pamphlet was an important part of the abolition movement.
So, what gift have you received from the Lord? Paul tells us everyone has received something. If its not writing or speaking, then perhaps its the gift of hospitality or encouragement. Maybe its something practical like fixing cars or even cutting hair. The point is, are we using our gifts and experiences to serve and help others? John Newton did and the world benefited.