World’s best-known hymn first sung 250 years ago
Published 7:30 am Sunday, January 15, 2023
On January 1, 1773, a small congregation in a small village near London gathered for a New Year’s Day service. John, the pastor of the church, wrote a song for that special occasion. He called it “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”
An only child, John was born in London in 1725. His mother died of tuberculosis just before his seventh birthday. A godly woman, she had taken him to church and taught him the Scriptures and about the Lord.
After her death, John spent two years in a boarding school and then went to live with his father and step-mother. A sea captain, his father was stern and not religious like his mother. At age eleven, he began to go on voyages with his father.
John eventually behaved like the other sailors, foul-mouthed and living a wild, reckless life. He ended up in West Africa where began serving on a slave ship. He found himself being treated like a slave himself, so his father sent a cargo ship to rescue him. During that voyage home, the ship got into a terrible storm off the coast of Ireland and it appeared they would not survive.
In a moment of hopelessness, the foul-mouthed sailor remembered the words his mother taught him and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us.” The storm calmed and everyone on board the ship survived. That day in March 1748 became a turning point in John’s life and journey to faith. Shortly after, however, he became the captain of a slave ship.
He got out of the slave trade business as his walk with Christ grew, and he began to speak out against the evils of slavery. John’s faith grew under the teaching ministry of John Wesley and George Whitfield. He served as pastor in the small village of Olney for 15 years and then was pastor of a church in London for 28 years until his death in 1807.
John encouraged William Wilberforce, a young member of the British Parliament, in his fight against the slave trade. The year that John died Wilberforce succeeded in getting a bill passed in Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire.
For that New Year’s Day service 250 years ago, John Newton wrote a hymn that told his personal journey to faith in Christ and the grace of God to save anyone.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, Was blind by now I see.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come, Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”
The Apostle Paul penned these words, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NKJ).
Just months before he died at age 82, Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things – that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”
— Jan White has compiled a collection of her columns in her book, “Everyday Faith for Daily Life.”