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Aside from Amazing Grace

Helping win a historic victory for humanity was an influencer with a shocking back story. Biographer Jonathan Aitken discovers there’s more to John Newton than penning Amazing Grace.

The Revd Jonathan Aitken has had one of the most high profile and colourful careers in British public life

Statue of John Newton

John Newton is back in the news. 250 years ago in January 1773 he wrote the words of what has become the most recorded, performed and loved hymn of all time – Amazing Grace. 

As a popular song it is right up there competing with Happy Birthday and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. And the spiritual power of its lyrics shines out at an estimated ten million annual weddings, funerals, celebrations and services across the world. 

As a biographer of John Newton I have paradoxical feelings about Amazing Grace.  I love the hymn as much as anyone particularly when it brings tears in the prison chapels where I serve as a chaplain.   

Yet for historical reasons I am disappointed on this great man’s behalf that he is largely remembered only for this hymn.   

For there is much more to John Newton than Amazing Grace. 

For starters he was so close a mentor to William Wilberforce, and so important a witness as an ex-slave ship captain to the horrors of the evil trade, that without Newton the Abolition of Slavery Act 1807 would never have won the necessary Parliamentary votes to pass into law. 

If this great historical achievement was not enough Newton’s colourful back story was the stuff of which best sellers and movies came to be made. 

In his wild youth Newton was a serial rebel.  He ran away from home, church, school and military service.  He was jailed and publicly flogged for desertion from the Royal Navy. 

After being thrown out of the Navy he ended up working as a slave trader in West Africa. 

There the hard drinking, riotous and ruthless young Newton indulged in every imaginable vice.  His business as a brutal kidnapper of natives, whom he sold to slave ships, made him a fortune.  

Then came a dramatic change, Newton got religion.  This happened on the 9th of March 1748.  Newton was on board a ship, The Greyhound, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly a massive storm wave hit the ship and almost broke it apart.  Newton was roused from sleep by a cry of “all hands on deck, the ship is sinking.”   

The storm of gale force winds which ripped a huge hole in The Greyhound lasted for the next seven days.  For most of that time Newton, a strong young seaman, took the helm.  He was certain that he and everyone else on board would be drowned.  In desperation he remembered some of the prayers he had learned from his mother, in his childhood, and started to pray for God to save his life. 

So when, against all the odds, The Greyhound did not sink and limped into the Port of Londonderry, Newton decided that perhaps there might be a God and began going to church. 

Although Newton did start praying and reading his Bible, he did not stop slave trading.  Promoted to being a slave ship Captain he made five further voyages to West Africa.  On his ships he indulged in many of the vicious cruelties that characterised the slave trade. 

Newton kept diaries of these horrors which included chaining, shackling, flogging, thumb screwing and throwing overboard the slaves during their long and dangerous voyage from the West Coast of Africa to the East Coast of America. 

Yet gradually, his self-educating Bible study and some teaching from Christian friends caused Newton to see the light. He gave up the slave trade.  He got a good shore job in his home port of Liverpool, a city which was being targeted by Methodist preachers such as Wesley and Whitefield. 

Newton, by now a soul on fire, became a preacher in dissenter chapels in Lancashire and Yorkshire.   

After some years he applied for ordination in the Church of England.  But he was turned down for ordination seven times in six years by various Bishops and Archbishops.  

These rejections had nothing to do with Newton’s sinful past career as a slave ship Captain.  For in the 18th Century, the Church of England was not merely tolerant of the slave trade.  It reaped many benefits from its large investments in it and the large donations it received from it. All documented in a recent Lambeth Palace Library exhibition.  

Astonishingly the reason why Newton was turned down for ordination was because he was thought to have ‘too much enthusiasm’.  

This was a coded phrase meaning that he was felt to be too close to the Methodists whose evangelical preaching and hymn singing was disapproved of by the established church hierarchy. 

But with the help of an admiring patron, the Earl of Dartmouth, Newton was ordained as a Church of England priest and appointed to a Dartmouth living at Olney church in Buckinghamshire. 

As a Parish Priest Newton was a huge success.  He trebled the size of his congregation to over 600 worshippers.  As a result, the church had to build a gallery to accommodate them. 

But his biggest break through was that Newton started writing articles, books and hymns. These bought him fame and a move to the strategically important church of St. Mary Woolnoth in the heart of the City of London. 

During his 28 years of service there, Newton continued to be a best-selling author, a campaigner for social reforms and a renowned preacher.  Influential people flocked to hear his sermons including an unknown young MP called William Wilberforce. 

Wilberforce first approached Newton to ask him to resolve what the young MP called “my anguish of soul”.  He said he wanted to give up being a Member of Parliament in order to become a Minister of Religion.   

Newton persuaded Wilberforce that it would be better for him to serve God by staying in Parliament. After taking that wise advice, Wilberforce developed a close friendship and mentoring relationship with Newton. 

During the next 15 years there were periods when Wilberforce became depressed and wanted to give up his abolitionist campaign. It was Newton who persuaded him to keep going.   

More importantly Newton became Wilberforce’s most vital witness about the horrors of the slave trade in front of a Select Committee in the House of Commons and in front of William Pitt and his Cabinet. 

Newton’s authentic eye witness accounts of the suffering of the Africans on board slave ships were devastating.   

His evidence and his best-selling pamphlet Thoughts on the African Slave Trade were game changers. Gradually the tide of public and parliamentary opinion turned against the slave trade.  Eventually in 1807 when 82 year old Newton was still the Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth,  William Wilberforce’s Abolition of Slavery Bill was voted into law by the House of Commons by 283 votes to 16. 

It was an historic victory for humanity.  And a political triumph for William Wilberforce.  But that victory and that triumph would never have been achieved without John Newton’s mentoring, supporting and his giving of vital evidence to Wilberforce’s campaign. 

In his last years John Newton was venerated as an iconic church leader, bestselling author, and abolitionist reformer. 

Surprisingly, he was not well known in his lifetime for Amazing Grace which only became famous when American churches took it up and made it an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  So Newton was regarded as a great man long before he was recognised as a great hymn writer. 

Fame was of little interest to John Newton.  He remained endearingly humble.  When he was on his deathbed the 18th century equivalent of a tabloid reporter burst into his bedroom and asked:

“Any last words Mr Newton?” 

He replied:

“Sir I know only two things. That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour!” 

What an exit line!  What a life! 

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How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 

 

How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.