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John Newton: from Disgrace to Amazing Grace

By Philip Yancey
August 2008


Most Christians know John Newton as the slave ship captain who famously converted to Christ on the high seas and then penned one of the greatest hymns of the faith: Amazing Grace. Less well-known is Newtons significance in his own day as an evangelical icon, great preacher and theologian, and important influence on abolitionist William Wilberforce. In this fascinating biography, Jonathan Aitken explores many facets of Newton's eventful life story, helping readers better understand his remarkable conversion and passionate fight to end the slave trade.

  • Publisher: Crossway Books
  • ISBN: 978-1433541810
  • Pages: 400
  • Price: £15.29
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Book Review

Having grown up with Brian Edwards’ classic biography of Newton, I opened this book with a mixture of curiosity and caution. The author’s name brought back news-flashes of politicians in disgrace. As I started reading, my curiosity increased and my caution evaporated. Well before the end, I was conscious that I was reading another classic.

This is a thoroughly well-researched biography, using previously unpublished material. While full of detail, it is written in a lively and engaging manner. Chapters are short and crisp, each with its own self-contained subject, so that it is one of those books you can pick up and read in odd moments. That said, the author writes in such a gripping way that it is hard to put down.

Christian biographies are always difficult, but the author here has avoided obsessive hero worship. He lets Newton speak for himself, and Newton never forgot his debt to God’s grace. You feel an intimacy with Newton as the author skilfully weaves the story. The sources are judiciously chosen so that the reader is not wearied by countless letter extracts that can cut up the narrative. No small task for a biographer with so much material at his disposal!

This is a good book for any Christian to read. It not only tells the story of Newton’s remarkable conversion and life but throws sidelights on other great characters such as Cowper and Wilberforce, to name but two. It is also an insight on evangelicalism of the late eighteenth century.

The story itself is full of excitement, not only detailing Newton’s adventure on the high seas but also the story of enduring love between Newton and his beloved Mary (whom he called ‘Polly’).

But above all, it is the story of amazing grace – of a desperately wicked man turned into a preacher and an influential patriarch of the evangelical cause. This makes the book ideal for any coffee table and hard to resist for even the most hardened of unbelieving friends. I hope the publishers will produce a paperback version so that it can be accessible to a wider reading public

Aitken writes with real passion for his subject and sees echoes in his own life of the grace that is so vividly portrayed in Newton’s. This is a book to inform your mind, warm your heart and inspire your Christian walk. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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