The amazing story of Rev John Newton

By Nub News Reporter

24th Jan 2024 | Local History

Rev John Newton.
Rev John Newton.

AT the January meeting of Thurrock Local History Society Chairman Susan Yates's talk entitled Grace 250 was intriguing.

The mystery was solved when she gave us a very interesting and well-illustrated account of the life of the Rev John Newton, author of Amazing Grace, penned 250 years ago.

John Newton was born in Wapping in 1725, the son of William, a sea captain. He attended a local Independent Chapel with his mother Elizabeth, who sadly died in 1732. His father then married Thomasina Cox of Marshfoot House, Aveley. She was the daughter of William Cox, subtenant of Aveley Manor who is buried in the chancel of St Michael's Church. John was sent to a boarding school, then went to sea with his father, aged only 11 years, logging six voyages.

In his youth he was a hellraiser but was press-ganged into the Royal Navy on his way to Jamaica. He served as midshipman on HMS Harwich, hating the Navy and tried to desert. He was humiliated when this resulted in flogging and demotion. Whilst the Harwich was on its way to India John transferred to a slave ship bound for West Africa.

He did not get on with his fellow crew and in 1745 he was left in Sierra Leone with a slave trader Amos Clowe who gave him to his wife Princess Peye, when he was badly treated and abused.

In 1748 his father's friend found him and he returned to England aboard the 'Greyhound'. This was when John experienced his religious awakening.

The ship was holed in a storm off Donegal and Newton prayed for the mercy of God, the ship making port in Lough Swilly.

This third near death experience may have been the beginning of Newton's conversion or return to God, feeling that he was saved for something special. He had survived being thrown from a horse and later saved from drowning when he was late in meeting friends at Purfleet to row out and view a ship moored there, so they left without him. Their boat struck an underwater object and sank with total loss of life. He now began his religious studies and gave up liquor, swearing and gambling.

He found work as first mate on the 'Brownlow' bound for the West Indies, returning to England in 1750 when he married Mary Catlett at Rochester.

He captained three slave ships, investing money in the slave trade. He suffered a stroke in 1754, which ended his seafaring career. The following year he gained employment as a tax collector in Liverpool. He studied in earnest for the priesthood and was accepted in 1764, ordained as a curate in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

He served there for 15 years, swelling the congregation with his sermons. There is a stained glass window in the church in his memory. Whilst in Olney he met William Cowper and they wrote hymns together. John also wrote 'Faith's Review and Expectation' in 1773, now known as 'Amazing Grace'.

Whilst at Olney William Wilberforce MP, sought his advice and Newton persuaded him to stay on in Parliament, helping him found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Newton left Olney in 1779 and became rector of St Mary Woolnoth, London, where he became involved with the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

In 1892 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Princeton University. John remained at St Mary Woolnoth until he died on 21 December 1807 aged 82, being buried next to his wife Mary. Two plaques have been erected in his name – one in Liverpool (where his life as a slave trader is not mentioned) and one at Purfleet.

He had lived long enough to see the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, although it was not until 1833 when all British Empire slaves were freed. Only the slave owners were compensated, the government borrowing £20m to do so, not being finally paid back until 2015.

Susan ended the amazing story of Rev. John Newton's life by playing Amazing Grace, some members singing along.

The society's next meeting is at 8pm on Friday 16 February at St John's Church hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays when John Matthews' talk is entitled 'Mary Anning (who sold seashells on the seashore). All visitors are welcome.


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