The amazing story of the man behind the ubiquitous song Amazing Grace, John Newton, is explored here in dramatic fashion. Skillfully acted by Erik Nelson, he portrays John Newton’s life and, oh, what a life it was! Leading up to his conversion, John is pictured as an ill-tempered man who had a lot of vices, not to mention a troublesome life, before finding God’s astounding grace. His turnaround is stunning and astonishing.
The story opens at the site of a beautiful church with a young boy, Samuel, being chased by a man with a switch, who is ready to whip the young boy. The pastor, John Newton, stops him and is told the young scamp had been fighting and swearing. John takes charge of the boy and takes him home to give him tea and biscuits. While there, he shares the amazing story of his life, and of his conversion. “I wasn’t always a church parson, you know,” he says.
John shares how his mother taught him to pray, but that she died when he was only six. His father was a merchant seaman. “I think my father must have loved me in his own way,” he says, “but I don’t remember feeling loved by him.” His father had soon remarried, they had children, and he was sent o a boarding school. He recalls going on a ship as a cabin boy with his father when he was just eleven. He dealt with a lot of anger and in one scene we see a shipman shove a cloth into his mouth for “blasphemies.”
Later, when he was older, he visited friends of his mother and met Mary, and he fell in love with her. He later would marry her and call her Polly. It would be some time, however, before this blessed event would take place.
He is later seen getting in a fight on a ship, punching a man’s face until we see blood on him, and he would drink and pull a woman to his lap. He was a carouser with a bad temper. He also had doubts as to the existence of God. This was a man, if ever there was one, who needed God’s amazing grace. Later, he would find it.
The period clothing for the film, not to mention the sets, are all first rate. Some of the sailing scenes and storms at sea are well done, but in a few scenes the CGI looks as if they did the best they could with the sailing ships with their likely small budget.
But the story is what counts, and there is plenty of story to tell in this film. John is hit with a club and often mistreated by officers of the ships he sailed on. In one scene he questions God, asking God if He has singled him out for special punishment. At one point he makes it clear he wants nothing to do with God. Still, some of the trouble he endures he brings on himself and some of it is unwarranted.
We do see growth in his character when he realizes if he wants more liberty as a seaman, he will need to work harder and be promoted. He does just this and is promoted to Mid-shipman, an apprentice officer. We see some action in the film too-when a British ship exchanges fire with a French vessel. In one scene, John is demoted and whipped, and we see the bloody stripes on his back although the scene is not gratuitous. He ends up on an island where he becomes a slave to an African woman of power, who has craved a “white slave.”
Newton works hard on the island and when it is learned he is good with figures and numbers, he is promoted to a job which allows him a comfortable lifestyle for a change. During a terrible storm when it looks as if all life will be lost, he prays, “God save us!” and immediately afterwards the clouds roll back and the sun shines. Newton begins to read books about God and the scriptures. One book, The Imitation of Christ, touches his heart and makes him wonder, “What if the words are true?” He begins to open up his heart to the Lord. He prays and studies and says, “The burning anger that drove me as a younger man now faded.”
Due to his father’s determination to find him, John is finally located and is soon bound for home, where he will see Mary. He misses his father by a day, who had left the day before to accept a job in Canada as a governor. He and his father would correspond with letters but, regrettably, never see one another again. He and Mary are married, and he becomes the captain of his own ship. He was the captain of a slave ship for a time, which he later says was so accepted that he didn’t think much about it at the time. But God began to deal with him about the sin of slavery and he eventually came to realize how wrong it is.
He eventually holds worship services on his ship. He feels the calling to become a pastor but, as always, life isn’t easy and he is refused ordination for a time, by the established church, the dissenters, and the Presbyterian church. However, he is finally ordained and is called to St. Peter and St. Paul parish where his dream to pastor is realized.
Fittingly, the story concludes with the young boy Samuel, now a man, visiting Newton’s grave with Samuel’s daughter, and Samuel telling her how John Newton influenced his life. The credits roll as Amazing Grace is played. It’s stated that-later on-Samuel met William Wilberforce, who helped bring an end to slavery in England.
This powerful and remarkable film is Dove approved for Ages 12+. It merits that due to its telling of God’s amazing grace, and the lives that His grace touches.
The Dove Take
Watch this powerful film to learn of the grace of God in the life of the man who wrote Amazing Grace.