On This Day: 21st March 1748—The Conversion of John Newton

by Aaron Dunlop

J. Newton quoteToday our youngest son William celebrates his third birthday. His grandpa reminded me in an email that this is also the day on which John Newton was converted back in 1748. It is an amazing story of the moving of the Spirit in the heart, making the sinner “willing in the day of [his] power” (Psalm 110:3). Here is the story told by his biographer.

At length, in January 1748 they left the coast of Africa for England—a long navigation of more than seven thousand miles, including the circuits necessary to be made on account of the trade-winds. At Newfoundland they amused themselves by fishing for cod, little expecting that soon those very fish would be all they should have to subsist upon. It was on the 1st of March that they left the Banks, with a hard gale of wind, in a vessel which, from the length of the voyage and the effects of the climate, was greatly out of repair. On the 9th Newton says, “The day before our catastrophe, among the few books on board was a copy of Thomas a Kempis. This I carelessly took up, and looked at it with the same indifference as I had often done before; but while I was reading this time an involuntary suggestion arose in my mind—What if these things should be true?

“I could not bear the force of the inference, and shut the book. True or false, I thought, I must abide the consequences of my own choice. I put an end to these reflections, and joined in with some vain conversation or other that came in my way.”

Newton went to bed that night in his state of usual indifference, but was awakened by a violent sea breaking over the ship, followed by the cry that they were sinking. Going on deck, the captain desired him to bring a knife; while he returned for it, another person went up in his stead, and was immediately washed overboard. The sea tore away the upper timbers of the vessel, and made it a mere wreck in a few minutes. In spite of all their efforts at pumping and baling out the water, the vessel was nearly full, and with a common cargo must inevitably have sunk, but the beeswax and wood being specifically lighter than the water, saved them from this catastrophe.

The wind fell, the leaks were stopped, and at last they perceived the water to abate. Nearly spent with cold and labour, Newton tells us, upon going to speak to the captain, “I said, almost without any meaning, ‘If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us!’ This thought, spoken without much reflection, was the first desire I had breathed for mercy for many years. I was instantly struck with my own words. It directly occurred, ‘What mercy can there be for me?’ I returned to the pumps and remained till noon, expecting that every time the vessel descended into the sea she would rise no more; and though I dreaded death now, and my heart foreboded the worst, still I was but half convinced, and remained for a space of time in a sullen frame, a mixture of despair and impatience.

“On the next day (March 21st) I continued,” he says, “at the pump from three in the morning till near noon, and then, unable to do more, I went and lay down upon my bed, almost indifferent whether I should rise again. In an hour’s time I was called, and went to the helm. There I had opportunity for reflection. I thought, allowing the Scripture premises, there never was or could be such a sinner as myself; and then comparing the advantages I had broken through, I concluded at first that my sins were too great to be forgiven.” About six in the evening the ship was freed from water, and there was a gleam of hope. “I thought,” continues Newton, “I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour. I began to pray. I could not utter the prayer of faith. I could not draw near to a reconciled God, and call him Father—my prayer was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear. I began to think of Jesus, whom I had so often derided. I recollected the particulars of his life and of his death—a death for sins not His own, but, as I remembered, for the sake of those who in their distress should put their trust in Him.”

But Newton’s great difficulty was to be assured of the inspiration of the Scriptures, and so to find a sufficient warrant for the exercise of trust and hope in God. He determined to examine the New Testament; and one of his first helps was found in reading Luke 11:13: “If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” From this passage he concluded that he must pray to God for His Spirit, and if that promise was really of God, He would make it good. His purpose was strengthened by the consideration of John 7:17: “If any man do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God,” and he resolved for the present to take the gospel for granted, but on every other side he was surrounded with black, unfathomable despair.

As the wind was now moderate, and they were drawing near to their port, they began to recover from their consternation. After a sad disappointment as to the appearance of land, and the wind becoming again contrary, they were driven from the coast of Ireland as far as the Hebrides. The ship was wrecked, provisions grew short, and their labors at the pump were incessant. This lasted more than a fortnight. Newton says, “The captain, whose temper was quite soured by distress, was hourly reproaching me as the sole cause of all this calamity, and was confident that if I was thrown overboard they should be preserved from death.” But at last, when they were ready to give up all for lost, the wind came round to the desired point, and blew so gently that their few remaining sails could bear it; and at length, just four weeks after the terrible damage they sustained at sea on the 8th of April, they landed in Lough Swilly in Ireland. When they came into port their last food was boiling in the pot; and they had not left their ship two hours, before the wind, which seemed to have been providentially restrained, began to blow with great violence, so that had they continued at sea that night in their shattered bark, they must have gone to the bottom. “About this time,” adds Newton, “I began to know that there is a God who hears and answers prayer.”

Edited and abbreviated from John Newton: An Auto Biography and Narrative Compiled Chiefly from His Diary and Other Unpublished Documents (1868). This book has been reprinted by Banner of Truth Trust; But Now I See (1998).

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