A Small Zen Reflection on John Newton’s Enlightenment Experience

A Small Zen Reflection on John Newton’s Enlightenment Experience July 24, 2021

John Newton




These days I find myself reflecting on the nature of awakening, enlightenment, or, if you will, conversion.

For me the great turning is a human thing, some lovely mystery that we are all of us invited to. And many of us in our different cultures and religions seek.

And find.

But, what in fact is it? Certainly a turning. But, is it sudden or gradual? Is it out of the blue, or is cultivation a significant, maybe essential part of the matter?

As it happens John Newton was born on this day, the 24th of July, in 1725 in East London. He was, if you’ve forgotten, the author of Amazing Grace.

His story encapsulates many of the questions about the awakening experience. And is worth considering. He had determined to be a sailor and had some experience at sea, when shortly after signing on to a merchant ship he was pressed into Royal Navy.

He had something of a spotty career, as a midshipman, he attempted to desert, was arrested, publicly flogged and reduced in rank to a regular sailor. He appeared to be troublesome, and while serving on another ship was left behind in West Africa, where he was enslaved.

In 1748, at the age of twenty-three, he was rescued. On the voyage home during a storm where he was sure the ship would sink, he called out to God to be saved. And he found some amazing moment. Sometimes when people tell Newton’s story everything after is conflated, turning from slaving, becoming a priest, writing that hymn.

It turns out to be a lot messier. This moment would actually be the beginning of a lengthy path. He stopped drinking, and swearing, and gambling, generally beginning a process of rehabilitation. Notably, however, he continued to work in the slave trade. He even rose to be captain of three slave voyages. After suffering a stroke at 29, he retired from the sea. But, he also continued to invest in the slave trade.

There was an awakening. But it was personal, private. And missing a terribly important part. During these years Newton began to seriously study the Hebrew and Christian texts, even learning biblical languages. He began preaching in Evangelical churches, while applying for ordination within the Church of England.

In 1764 he was ordained deacon, and later the same year, a priest. He became a popular preacher, with a following among the nonconformist community as well as within the established church. It is noted how his counsel to a young parliamentarian, William Wilberforce, who was experiencing a crisis of conscience, and considering leaving parliament, was a turning point in Wilberforce remaining. Wilberforce, it is critical to note, would eventually lead the abolitionist movement in England.

As for Newton, forty years after his conversion moment, in 1788 he wrote a pamphlet “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” Here the doors were thrown completely open, his awakening reaching its fullness, seeing the heart and the hand connected, seeing self and other unique, and yet more intimate than words can fully convey.

The pamphlet was a culmination of his personal awakening and the fullness of that encounter’s consequences in his life. The pamphlet offered a clear eyed picture of the slave trade, and included his confession of guilt for his part in it. He frankly asserted that the years after he believed he had converted to Christianity but during which time he continued as a slaver and then invested in slavery, proved his conversion was false.

I don’t think false. But, I also believe his owning the hypocrisy of his heart and his pocketbook at such horrific cost to others terribly important. In the Zen way we speak of the Fox koan. He spent forty years partially on the way, partially in the hell realms.

Within his spiritual maturity, John Newton dedicated his life to the abolitionist cause, becoming one of Wilberforce’s greatest allies. And he lived to see the abolition of slavery in England in 1807. A small blessing, one not given to all who devote themselves to great causes.

I think a lot about that path toward sanctity. I think about Damascus road experiences, explosive encounters and great awakenings. Sudden enlightenment, and gradual. Now each spiritual tradition offers its own wrinkles on the way. And none escape errors, too many human beings involved.

I find the Christian tradition writ large often misses the identity of form, of the world and the individual, with the great empty. Although there are relentless hints, the mystics, and even within Orthodoxy that wondrous term, “theosis.” On the other hand at their best they and the Abrahamic traditions often get the importance of manifestation in the here and now a bit better than is often the case with the Dharmic traditions. So, there’s that.

Lessons littered all along the way,  if we’re humble, just a little, and are willing to notice. In the Zen world the questions of gradual and sudden are enshrined in the literature. What is interesting is how the sudden of it gets the most emphasis. Our founding story is about a peasant who hears a line from the Diamond Sutra and awakens. For all we’re led to believe, full and complete. But even in that story he then proceeds to a monastery. And then, even after being confirmed, he spends another decade in mountain retreat.

Gradual and sudden. Both. A lifetime, along the way small graces and large. But together, the eruption of the universe into a person over what we perceive as a beginning and an end, but in reality something rather more mysterious, together.

I’ve come to believe the enlightenment of John Newton is most real. Not that there aren’t other realities on the way. But, that he had intimations along the way. Even some enormous.

But, the fulfillment of that came as he considered, reflected, even studied. And with that a pointing for us all. You want to know someone’s awakening? Don’t look to any one moment. However wonderful. Or, however terrible.

Look big. What happened over the whole of a life? What happened out of those wonderful and terrible events? Moment and moment, sanctity, wisdom, gentleness, care, attention, and manifestation. And failure, desperation, mistakes. All of it. And what comes of it. Full. And in and with good time that sudden awakening became an amazing grace.

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