Biographies are good for the soul. There’s nothing like sitting down with a good biography and getting to know a historical figure through a well-written description of a person’s life and times.
John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Crossway, 2007) is a terrific portrait of the life of John Newton (1725-1807) Author Jonathan Aitken recounts the remarkable story of the man who gave us the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Here is a former captain of slave ships who became a beloved pastor, prolific hymnwriter and advocate of abolition.
Aitken wisely spends a good deal of time detailing the travels of John Newton before his conversion. He does not shy away from describing the horror of the slave trade. But detailing the wickedness of Newton’s early life provides the much-needed backdrop to his dramatic transformation upon believing in the gospel. Aitken’s book excels in painting a “Before” and “After” picture of Newton’s extraordinary life.
Aitken describes Newton’s struggles, but he does so in a way that makes his protagonist sympathetic. He shows how Newton sought to maintain single-minded devotion to Christ in the midst of his rising fame and popularity. The reader senses Newton’s heartfelt passion for rectifying his past wrongs by fighting slavery in his old age. The accounts of Newton’s dealings with William Wilberforce are fascinating.
John Newton was truly a great man. And there is much more to his life than the hymn “Amazing Grace.” But even though Newton’s life cannot be reduced to mere “hymnwriter,” Aitken understands that “Amazing Grace” is what he is best known for. So he wisely includes a chapter that shows how “Amazing Grace” started out as an obscure hymn and became the world’s most-recognized Christian song.
The best part about John Newton is not the song or the biography, but the reality of the amazing grace to which both testify.