The year was 1784.
On board the slave ship the Greyhound was a well-seasoned sailor named John Newton. The ship had been caught in the arms of a horrific north Atlantic storm for over a week; it had taken a terrible beating. Its sails lay in tatters and most of the wood on one side of the ship had been torn away.
Even though the sailors on board were convinced they were all going to die, they nonetheless kept working the pumps. On the eleventh day of the storm, Newton, spent from working the pumps, was lashed to the helm. He steered as best as he could for the next 11 hours.
With the storm fiercely raging, Newton had time to reflect on his life, one that seemed as ruined and wrecked as the battered ship he was on. Sailors were well known for their crude behavior and manners. But Newton exceeded even that lowly reputation to such an extent that his profanity and coarseness had earned him the nickname “The Great Blasphemer.”
Despite his life of debauchery, on that day, March 21, 1748, Newton's thoughts turned to Christ. He found a New Testament and began reading it. As he would state many years later, that was the day when “the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters."
Though he continued to engage in slave trading for a few more years after his “epiphany”, his life had been truly transformed. He began reading the Bible daily and became a Christian role model for his shipmates.
After Newton left slave trading, he took a job as a tide surveyor in Liverpool. But, he had this lingering feeling that he had been called to a higher duty. In 1769, at the age of 44, he became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. His ministry included both the poor and the well-to-do of London.
One such influential parishioner was MP William Wilberforce, an ardent abolitionist. He was strongly influenced by Newton's life and preaching. In fact, Newton's thoughts on the African slave trade, based on his own experiences as a slave trader, was a very important factor in Britain’s abolition of slavery.
Over the years, Newton wrote hundreds of hymns for Sunday evening services; one would bring him everlasting fame. That hymn was "Faith's Review and Expectation." Now, we know it by a different name — "Amazing Grace."
In the 20th century, the hymn was put to music and recorded by many artists. The most famous version was by folk singer Judy Collins, who in 1969, explained why she recorded this song,
"I didn't know what else to do about the war in Vietnam. I had marched, had voted, had gone to jail… but the war was still raging. There was nothing left to do, I thought ... but sing 'Amazing Grace.'”
She recorded an a cappella arrangement accompanied by a chorus of amateur singers who were her friends.
Quite unexpectedly, the “religious” song began to be played on the radio, and then be requested. It rose to number 15 and remained on the Hot 100 Chart for 15 weeks.
John Newton lived long enough to see Britain abolish the African slave trade in 1807. He died shortly thereafter, no doubt satisfied that through his reformed life, he had made a difference.