Years before he penned the now-famous words “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see,” John Newton was a slave trader with little use for religion. His upbringing did not include much spiritual instruction after his mother died, and his many years at sea introduced him to what he called “profane practices,” in which he indulged liberally. Life as a sailor got so bad for Newton that he later admitted that the only reason he didn’t commit suicide was because he wanted to murder his captain first.
But then a violent storm at sea finally brought him face to face with his own mortality and turned his thoughts toward God, whom he had long since abandoned. Although he was sure he was beyond forgiveness and frankly still doubted whether the Bible was even true, yet he started reading the New Testament and examining his life. He finally determined to give Christianity—and himself—a second chance.
Interestingly, however, John Newton’s spiritual awakening did not inspire him right away to get out of the slave-trading business. Even after becoming an ordained minister with a large following, he continued to invest money in the slave trade. As easy as it is for us, hundreds of years later, to see the moral contradiction in a Christian preacher selling men and women into slavery, that contradiction long remained a blind spot in John Newton. Despite all of the meaningful reforms he had made to his life, he did not yet see the need to change his slave-trading ways.
Fortunately, John Newton, though once blind, did eventually see. Before the end of his life, he wrote an influential publication denouncing slavery and confessing his shame at ever having been involved in it. He also became a powerful supporter of William Wilberforce, the member of Parliament who led the fight to abolish slavery in Great Britain.
John Newton wrote, “We think we know a great deal, because we are ignorant of what remains to be learnt.” His life exemplifies that truth. The more we improve our lives, the more we see our need to improve even further. The more we recognize our own blindness, the more we are able to see.