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Born into a captain’s family who traded at the East India Company, John Newton (July 24, 1725 – December 21, 1807) embarked on sea voyages at the young age of 11. He soon entered the prosperous slave trade until he nearly died on a voyage that would change his life forever. He proclaimed, “Only God’s amazing grace could and would take a rude, profane, slave-trading sailor and transform him into a child of God.” This would influence his famed hymn Amazing Grace, in which he declared he was once blind but now could see. Newton wrote the hymn after converting to Christianity in 1748 and abandoning his participation in the slave trade. In1764 he was ordained in the Church of England.


William Wilberforce first met John Newton when he (Wilberforce) was a child. Newton was the pastor at the church Wilberforce attended. He (Wilberforce) became reacquainted with Newton in his twenties when Wilberforce was on the brink of a career as a British MP (Member of Parliament). Wilberforce’s outspokenness on the abolition issue may well have also led Newton to make his first public confession of guilt over his past involvement in the slave trade. In the Amazing Grace, Wilberforce visits John Newton twice. The first time he asks Newton for advice about whether to leave politics and join the clergy. And, in hopes of using Newton’s testimony as a former slave trader, Wilberforce visits Newton for a second time, now at St. Mary Woolnoth Church in London. Here Wilberforce discovers that his former pastor is indeed blind.

He (Wilberforce) incorporated Newton’s confession into his plea for abolition. The vote to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire finally passed in 1807—the same year John Newton died. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the date when the abolition act first passed the vote of Parliament


Not limiting himself to just abolitionist work, Wilberforce dedicated his life to what he called his "two great objects:" abolishing slavery in the British Empire and what he called "the reformation of manners [society]." To this end, he advocated for child labour laws, campaigned for education of the blind and deaf, and founded organizations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the National Gallery (of Art). He managed to get written into the chart of the East Indies Trading Company the right of missionary to also go to India. In short, he paved the way for Christian missionary work in India, but also in West African countries such as Sierra Leone.