At the end of December 1772, an Anglican priest in the poor parish of Olney worked by candlelight on his New Year’s Day sermon. He would preach on the text of 1 Chronicles 17, verses 16 and 17.
That passage was David’s response to God after Nathan informed him that his descendants would be enthroned forever as kings of Israel. David, the once poor shepherd boy, the man who had repented of adultery and murder, responded to the news by saying, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me thus far?”
That pastor was John Newton, and those words struck a deep chord in his heart.
In those last days of 1772, Newton found himself running out of empty pages in his journal, a bound book of 300 pages holding 16 years worth of entries. As he came to finish that journal and start another, his mind was drawn to the pages of his past—the story of his life from his days as an unregenerate slave-trader to becoming a child of God.
Newton would have remembered when his rebellious spirit got him thrown off numerous ships, publicly flogged, and ousted from His Majesty’s Navy. He would have remembered the shipwrecks and the mutinies—and then the transformation of his heart by the power of the Gospel. As Newton considered those days gone by, he would have asked as David did, “Who am I, O Lord...that you have brought me this far?”
As was his habit, Newton set to work composing a hymn to illustrate his New Year’s Day sermon. In that hymn, he would tell his poor congregation of lace-makers and low-paid artisans about the dangers and snares he had faced. He would reflect on the amazing grace that had saved a wretch like him.
Those now-famous words of “Amazing Grace,” first sung in the small parish of Olney on New Year’s Day, 1773, lingered in obscurity for many years. Even as Newton counseled the young William Wilberforce and encouraged him to stay the course in the long battle against the slave trade, the words to “Amazing Grace” were little sung in England. But the Olney hymnal, later published by Newton, caught on in the Americas.
The words of “Amazing Grace” would surface again some 80 years later in a book that would change the course of this nation, "Uncle Tom’s Cabin." In it, the slave, Tom, at his lowest point, sings the words of “Amazing Grace.” Two verses hardly sung today were sung by Tom: “And when this mortal life shall fail/ And flesh and sense shall cease,/ I shall possess within the veil,/ A life of joy and peace.”These words of the ultimate hope in God, even in the face of deep injustice, forever entwined the words of “Amazing Grace”with the plight of the slaves.
But it all began in that dark little study in the waning days of a year gone by, when one man took the time to reflect on God’s goodness to him.
This New Year’s Day we'd all do well to pay tribute to Newton by imitating his gratitude to God and his heart for the lost. We would do well also to set aside some time to reflect on what God has done in our lives—how He has delivered us from slavery to sin. And we would do well to consider how we, in this new year, can sing God’s praise with our lips and with our lives.