Review: John Newton, from disgrace to Amazing Grace

John Newton is most famous today for his great hymn Amazing grace but as Jonathan Aitken shows in this excellent biography, that is just one of the many reasons to study his life.

Newton's story followed a trajectory that is familiar to some of us: foolish and sinful youth, conversion, confusion, the gradual discovery of new life... but the wholehearted manner in which he responded to God's salvation and providence is remarkable. His discipline and perseverance will inspire and educate anyone wanting to live life well.

The amount of research that has been done is extremely impressive, with a comprehensive list of resource materials at the end. Thus the book is filled with Newton’s own words from his diaries and letters which brings the reader close to the subject – surely the goal of any good biography.

Both his weaknesses (including the fear that he idolised his wife) and his strengths (such as his mentoring of many younger evangelicals) are shown. Perhaps his greatest single achievement, though it is inextricably linked with the whole sweep of his life and character, was his decisive influence in William Wilberforce's decision to stay in politics and successfully fight for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. That Newton himself had been involved in slave trading is just one of the great grace ironies in his life, as he was keen to acknowledge.

Although it was by no means a famous hymn in his own time, Amazing Grace accurately describes both God's goodness and Newton's gladness. Amongst his last recorded words were the following, filled with the humility and hope which shaped his life: “My memory is almost gone but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour.”