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John Newton (1725-1807): The Former Slaver & Preacher

John Newton

John Newton was an Anglican clergyman and former slave ship master. It took him a long time to speak out against the Slave Trade but he had an influence on many young evangelical Christians, particularly William Wilberforce.

At just 11 years old, Newton went to sea with his father. In 1743 he was on his way to a position as a slave master on a plantation in Jamaica, when he was pressed into naval service. He became a midshipman but after demotion for trying to desert, he requested an exchange to a slave ship bound for West Africa.

Eventually he reached the coast of Sierra Leone where he became the servant of an abusive slave trader. In 1748, he was rescued by a sea captain and returned to England. During a storm, when it was thought the ship might sink, he prayed for deliverance. This experience began his conversion to evangelical Christianity. Later, whilst aboard a slave vessel bound for the West Indies, he became ill with a violent fever and asked for God's mercy; an experience he claimed was the turning point in his life.

Despite this, he continued to participate in the Slave Trade. In 1750, he made a further voyage as master of the slave ship 'Duke of Argyle' and two voyages on the 'African'. He admitted that he was a ruthless businessman and a unfeeling observer of the Africans he traded.  Slave revolts on board ship were frequent. Newton mounted guns and muskets on the desk aimed at the slaves' quarters. Slaves were lashed and put in thumbscrews to keep them quiet.

In 1754, after a serious illness, he gave up seafaring altogether. In 1757, he applied for the Anglican priesthood. It was seven years before he was accepted. On 17th June 1764, he finally became a priest at Olney in Buckinghamshire.  He became well known for his pastoral care and respected by both Anglicans and nonconformists.

He collaborated with William Cowper to produce a volume of hymns, including 'Amazing Grace'. So popular was his preaching, that the church could not accommodate all those who flocked to hear him. Newton began to deeply regret his involvement in the Slave Trade. After he became Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, in London in 1779, his advice was sought by many influential figures in Georgian society, among them the young M.P., William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry. Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament and "serve God where he was". Wilberforce took his advice, and spent the rest of his life working towards the abolition of slavery.

In 1787, Newton wrote a tract supporting the campaign, 'Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade', which was very influential. It graphically described the horrors of the Slave Trade and his role in it. He later joined William Wilberforce in the campaign for abolition of the Slave Trade. In February 1807, when the act to abolish the Slave Trade finally became law, John Newton, nearly blind and near death, "rejoiced to hear the wonderful news."

Hear extracts from John Newton's autobiography:
Describing conditions on the ships
Describing a slave's life 
Describing an minor African King/Trader


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