Story Behind the Hymn
The world’s most-loved and best-known hymn became the most performed and most recorded song in history in the 1960s. It topped the official singles charts in the early 1970s during the Jesus movement when millions turned to faith in God. This hymn, written by John Newton who, as an 11-year-old boy, joined his father on the seas when his godly mother died. His father and the hardened deckhands influenced young Newton to become a profane infidel, unpredictable, violent, a drunkard and a murderer. He scared even veteran sailors when he was not in jail. Law officers called him “vicious, brutal, void of empathy and fearless.” Running from the law, he escaped to Africa where he joined a mob that was equally violent. They traded guns, spices, liquor, and human cargo on slave ships. The one in 3 slaves that did survive the 6-week journey were sold at auction.
One night a violent storm broke out shortly after 23-year-old Captain Newton left the deck. He was immersed in a book, The Imitation of Christ, indifferent to the moans, screams and stench of those in chains below and unaware of the rapidly approaching storm. When he noticed it, he was certain this was the end. As he prepared to die, Newton reviewed his wretched life, realizing that the only person who had ever loved him was his godly mother. He knew she would be disappointed with him. He fell to his knees in prayer, seeking God’s grace. This was the hour he first believed. Immediately, the storm averted, and the ship completed its journey. A few years later, plagued with the “struggles between sin and conscience” he was no longer able to justify the slave trade business. As he put it, “I was increasingly perturbed by a course of life that was involved with shackles and chains and leg irons.”
Twenty years later, Pastor Newton delivered a message to his congregation on the grace of God. He spoke of his life at sea, admitting his past sins and God’s grace on him during a violent storm. He composed a little hymn so the people could more easily remember the day’s sermon. He finished the hymn singing the now-forgotten verse:
In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
When he was an old man and nearly blind, Newton remarked “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a Great Savior.” This hymn, written by a truly repentant criminal-turned-pastor, charts the path for the blind, wretched sinner on the road to spiritual sight through God’s grace of salvation.