This article was originally published in Prison Fellowship®'s Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed to corrections facilities across the country.
In the last year of his life, Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, re-visited Maxwell Federal Prison Camp near Montgomery, Alabama, where he served time in the 1970s.
While he was there, he gave a message to the men in the chapel. At the end, they all formed a circle around the edges of the room and joined hands. Chuck asked if they would sing "Amazing Grace" with him. He said that famous hymn was like "the prisoners' national anthem." Every time Chuck went behind bars, the incarcerated men or women he visited knew all the words.
Many might be able to sing "Amazing Grace," but not everyone knows the story behind this beloved song. It was written in 1779 by John Newton, one of the most respected preachers in England at the time.
A LONG WAY DOWN
Newton wasn't always a spiritual leader. Born in London in 1725, he was the only child of a sea captain and a churchgoing woman. His mother taught him to read the Bible and go to services, but she died when Newton was seven years old. His father and stepmother did less to keep him on the straight and narrow, and he got into trouble many times.
However, he never forgot the lessons his mother taught him.
As a young man, Newton fell hard for a young woman named Mary, and when he was 19, while traveling to see her, he fell victim to a "press gang." The press gang forced Newton to join the crew of a ship, where discipline was harsh, and the food was bad and scarce.
Newton's spirit was nearly broken. His mother's God seemed far away and uncaring. When he tried and failed to escape, the ship's captain had him stripped and flogged.
Later Newton was transferred to another ship, and he became involved in the brutal 18th-century slave trade. The work was horrific and cost many human lives. Yet at the time it was legal—and lucrative.
Newton became known for his wild behavior (he almost drowned after falling off a ship during a party) and for openly mocking faith. He seemed as far away from God as he could get.
But God had other ideas.
A TURNING POINT
In 1748, Newton was on board a slaving ship called the Greyhound. The ship was in bad shape. During a violent storm, it began to fall apart and take on water. A crew member was swept overboard.
All night long Newton tried to keep the ship from going under. And he thought about the state of his life. He knew he had run from God, hurt other people, and made a wreck out of his own situation. He had even mocked the Gospel.
Newton realized he might die in the storm. Would God still be forgiving, even after Newton had rejected Him?
At last, Newton recalled what his mother had taught him from the Bible: God loves to show mercy even to people who feel they are beyond redemption. Newton asked for God's help for the first time in years. He survived the storm.
TRANSFORMED BY GRACE
It didn't happen overnight, but Newton's life began to be transformed. He learned to pray. He found friends who shared his faith and could help him understand how it applied to his life. Eventually he gave up his role in the slave trade and stopped sailing for a living.
Instead, Newton, who had married Mary, became the curate, or pastor, of a small English church. He also became a writer. One of his hymns, "Amazing Grace," describes his very personal journey out of spiritual blindness into the light of God's grace.
In his later years, Newton became the pastor of a larger church in London, where he helped lead many people to the God he had once mocked. He was also active in the movement to abolish the British slave trade. When the prime minister appointed a committee to investigate the slave trade, Newton was a key witness. He explained the horrors of the "industry" from the inside out. His compelling testimony helped make the slave trade—and eventually slavery—illegal.
God's amazing grace is for everyone. Period. It applied to Chuck Colson, who, as Nixon's "hatchet man," had the reputation for being willing to “run over his own grandmother” to gain reelection. It applied to John Newton, who mocked God and captained a slave ship. It applies to you.
Jesus said, "Healthy people don't need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners" (Mark 2:17, NLT). If, like John Newton, you wonder whether God could forgive you, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" He wants you to open your heart to Him so that you can be free from the weight of your past, experience His "amazing grace" for yourself, and realize your part in His plan.
ABOUT INSIDE JOURNAL
Inside Journal is a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship to corrections facilities across the country. Written specifically for incarcerated men and women, each issue (offered both in English and Spanish) explains the Gospel in a fresh way, offers encouragement and motivation, and shares practical advice for the daily struggles of prison life. Distributed to prisoners via chaplains, program coordinators, and in-prison volunteers, Inside Journal provides a unique way to share the hope of Jesus with those who may never attend a chapel service or Bible study. If you are chaplain or prison ministry volunteer interested in bulk shipments, write to [email protected].