John Newton was born in Wapping, London. He was sent away to school which proved to be an unhappy experience for him. By the age of eleven he was serving on his father’s ship sailing to the Mediterranean. Later he was press ganged onto HMS Harwich eventually being exchanged for a merchant seaman. He resumed life in the maritime trade working on the West African coast buying slaves. For a time he was ‘enslaved’ himself and forced to work on a plantation.
In 1747 he was rescued and returned to England on a ship called the Greyhound. The ‘Greyhound’ traded in gold, ivory, beeswax and dyer’s wood (an ingredient used in the dying industry). In 1748, once again on board the ‘Greyhound’ on its way across the Atlantic from Brazil back to Liverpool, Newton and most of the rest of the crew survived a terrible storm at sea which lasted from March 10 until April 8. During this ordeal he prayed, for the first time since childhood, to be saved. Commentators believe that this ‘re-awakening of his faith’ ultimately led to his evangelism.
The ship sustained severe storm damage over a two week period and was blown further off course towards the north of Ireland. Almost miraculously the storm abated long enough for them to put down anchor in Lough Swilly where they had no choice but to wait for the vessel to be made sea worthy.
Before very long John Newton was to experience yet another brush with death. He was invited by the Lord Mayor of Londonderry to be his guest at a shooting party during which his own fowling piece accidentally discharged destroying his hat and not his head. This second near-death experience convinced Newton that God was watching over him and during the remainder of his time in Londonderry while he waited for the ‘Greyhound’ to be repaired he is said to have prayed twice daily in St Columb’s Cathedral, which may even have inspired him to write one of the most popular hymns in the English language – ‘Amazing Grace’.