Amazing Grace in John Newton: Slave-Ship Captain, Hymnwriter, and Abolitionist. By William E. Phipps. Macon , GA : Mercer University Press, 2001. 270 pp. Cloth. $35.00
If you like the song Amazing Grace, then you’ll probably like this book about its author.
Much confusion surrounds John Newton. His life is often idealized. Phipps points out that a major biography by Kathleen Norris notes that he came to faith in Christ while captaining a slave ship. Then he immediately turned the ship back to Africa and released the slaves and renounced the slave trade once and for all (p. 206). That never happened. Not only did he not stop the slave trade abruptly due to some religious conversion, it is far from clear when (or if) Newton came to faith.
Phipps points out that Philip Yancey in his book What’s So Amazing about Grace? mistakenly suggests that Newton wrote Amazing Grace while in an African harbor waiting for a shipment of slaves (p. 281 in Yancey, cited by Phipps on p. 206). The truth is, Newton composed Amazing Grace while a pastor in Olney, “long after his years as a ship captain” (p. 206; see also pp. 125-31, 146-58).
Many point to March 21, 1748 as the date of Newton’s “conversion.” That was when Newton nearly drowned in a storm. Newton felt that God saved him from certain death that day. From then on, he began daily devotions and cleaned up his language. But he remained a slave trader. And by his own testimony he did not yet believe the gospel: “I seemed humbled and thankful. But I was still blind to the gospel” (p. 207).
Newton was a Calvinist with significant reservations: “I am what they call a Calvinist, yet there are flights, niceties, and hard sayings to be found among some of that system, which I do not choose to imitate” (p. 104). He admitted, “What is by some called high Calvinism, I dread. I feel much more union of spirit with some Arminians, than I could with some Calvinists” (p. 105).
One of Newton ’s reservations with Calvinism may have been the doctrine of eternal security. Phipps comments, “The ‘once saved, always saved’ doctrine of high Calvinism troubled Newton because it minimized human responsibility. Unlike those who believed that once ‘elected’ there would be ‘perseverance of the saints’ evermore, Newton acknowledged with the Methodists that there are ‘backsliders,’ those who had professed their faith but were no longer expressing it in word or deed” (p. 105). Does Phipps mean that Newton believed in eternal security but not guaranteed perseverance? While Phipps starts by talking about eternal security, the rest of his statement concerns the possibility of failure to persevere.
Phipps suggests that Newton was not so concerned about a point of coming to faith in Christ, but about a process of becoming more and more godly. Phipps suggests that the line “the hour I first believed” was not meant by Newton , as we assume, to suggest that we know when we come to faith and at that time we are born again and eternally secure. Instead, Phipps says, “ Newton intended the hymn to refer to a complex conversion that might begin early in life and continue to grow sporadically for the remainder of life…The hymn’s opening stanza can be thought of as alluding to conversion stages” (p. 210).
One is not born again until he believes that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him (John 6:47; 11:25-27). Did Newton ever believe that? Possibly he did. Note this statement which is contrary to the conclusion of Phipps cited above (without giving any proof from Newton): “But now I began to understand the security of the covenant of grace, and to expect to be preserved, not by my own power and holiness, but by the mighty power and promise of God, through faith in an unchangeable Savior” (p. 66).
The book ends with an Afterword. While it begins well, it ends with Phipps preaching social activism. I found the closing pages of the Afterword to be a bit annoying. Fortunately, the preachy tone is not found elsewhere in the book.
This is an outstanding book. I highly recommend it.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Irving , TX