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John Newton (1725-1807)

John Newton was born in London the son of a merchant navy captain. He was educated at a school at Stratford in Essex and went to sea at the age of 11. Newton made a series of six voyages under his father's tutelage between 1736 and 1742. After his father's retirement, it was intended that Newton be sent to work on a sugar plantation in Jamaica but this plan came to nothing and he remained at sea.

In 1744 Newton was press-ganged into the Royal Navy but was given the rank of midshipman after his father's intervention. Of an unruly and undisciplined nature, Newton deserted in Plymouth, was recaptured and flogged. He was finally exchanged into a merchant ship, a slaver, and thereafter rose through the ranks and gained his own command in 1750. Newton was a captain in the slave trade until 1755 when he was appointed surveyor of tides at Liverpool.

Newton had converted during a storm at sea in March 1748. When he settled in Liverpool with his wife Mary, who he married in 1750, he started to hold bible meetings in his house and entertained George Whitefield. A mild Calvinist by persuasion this did not prevent Newton from engaging in a friendly correspondence with John Wesley and he also became acquainted with other evangelicals such as William Grimshaw and Henry Venn.

Newton applied for Holy Orders but was turned down. In 1760 he became the minister of an independent congregation at Warwick and was also invited by Wesley to enter the Methodist itinerancy.

At this time Newton wrote a first draft of his autobiography and when this was shown to the evangelical sympathiser Lord Dartmouth, influence was exerted to persuade the Bishop of Lincoln to ordain Newton into the Anglican ministry. In 1764 he was appointed curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire and immediately embarked on a very active and successful parish ministry conducted on evangelical lines.

Newton became friendly with the poet William Cowper and the two collaborated in writing The Olney Hymns in 1779. Newton's contribution included for the first time in print the famous works "Amazing Grace", "Glorious things of thee are spoken" and "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds".

In January 1780 Newton became the Vicar of St Mary Woolnoth with St Mary Woolchurch in London and remained there for the rest of his life as a powerful influence over many younger Anglican evangelicals. In his later years, Newton was staunchly opposed to the slave trade and bitterly regretted his own part in it. In 1787 he published the influential Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade and also gave evidence before the Privy Council.

Source: Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1739-1860, edited by Donald M. Lewis (1995)

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