You might not know this, and if you do you’re pretty cool, but some of our favorite and most known hymnals have breathtaking backstories. Here’s a few that I found fascinating.
John Newton, (the author of this story/song), was born in 1725, near the Thames river in London, England. He grew up with his father, a merchant seamaster in the Mediterranean after his mother died when he was about to turn seven. Newton refused to concur with his father’s plans of working on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. So instead he left with another ship back to the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1743, Newton was captured and forced into the Royal Navy. After trying to escape, he was brutally beaten in front of the whole crew. Newton wanted to murder the captain and die, but for some reason he restrained himself. (The captain, William Adams, was killed five years later during the War of the Austrian Succession. Just in case you wanted to know.) Headed to India, Newton transported to another ship. Only this one was a slave trading ship bound for West Africa. The crew on the Pegasus did not like Newton, in fact, they left him with a slave dealer off the coast of West Africa as soon as possible. He was abused and mistreated as a slave until 1748, when a sea captain, asked by his father, came to rescue him.
Let me pause the story for a moment and tell you what my thoughts were while reading this.
Son runs away from his father. The son ends up a beggar. Son gets saved because of the father.
Does anyone recognize the parable of the prodigal son? Okay, back to John Newton’s biography.
After getting rescued by his father’s hired sea captain there’s a storm. Pfft. A storm? C’mon, he’s been through all that and a storm is what you’re worried about? The storm was so bad, Newton woke up by water filling the ship. He was so frightened for his life he ended up calling out to God, which previously he did not believe in. Later, Newton says that that journey back to England was the first realization of a true and living God.
It Is Well
Horatio Spafford was an acclaimed lawyer in Chicago, in the 1860’s. He married his wife, Anna Larson, during the fall of 1861. Together they had four daughters.
However he made a real estate investment near the northern part of Chicago, but all was lost when the Great Chicago Fire happened in 1871.
The Spaffords were good friends with D. L. Moody (a famous evangelist at the time) so when they heard he was preaching in England, they decided to take a holiday. Horatio was detained on business so he sent his family ahead of him on the steamship, Ville du Havre, in 1873. The ship sank after bumping very severely into another vessel named, Loch Earn, (I apologize for all the ship names). 226 people died during the collision. The wife, Anna, was among the 87 that survived.
Her husband made his journey over the Atlantic after receiving a newly invented telegram saying, “Saved alone.” On the way to his wife, as he was passing over the direct spot his daughters sank, the first lyrics came to him.
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,When sorrows like sea billows roll;Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,It is well, it is well with my soul.”
After the last tragedy, Anna had three more children, but the oldest boy died at age four of scarlet fever. Horatio and Anna Spafford, along with their two daughters moved to the Holy Land, Jerusalem, and lived there until they went home.
Rock of Ages
Augustus Montague Toplady was literally saved by the Rock. In the Bible, it refers to God as the rock of salvation and the foundation of our faith. And as Agustus was traveling alongside a gorge in England when a disastrous storm starting billowing in. He took shelter amongst the rocks and God comforted his fears as the words of the hymn came to him.
I have Decided to Follow Jesus
Were the last words of a man in India in the 19th century.
In the north-eastern part of India, in the village called Assam, there was a man and his family who were being harassed by the villagers. The village chief threatened the Christian’s family unless they converted themselves.
One day the gang of persecutors found him and took his wife and held her against her will, saying if you tell us you do not believe in Jesus she will not die. The man said, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus,’ and the wife was killed. The villagers took his children and enticed the man to alter his faith, but he stood up for Christ. He was murdered while singing:
“I have decided to follow Jesus; Though none go with me, I still will follow. The world behind me, the cross before me. No turning back, no turning back.”
Those were some of the most fascinating to me, anyway. Average people, like you and me, wrote these famous lyrics by personal conviction and now we sing their songs full of praise.
I hope that by reading these small biographies inspired something inside of you. Never be afraid to cry out to God. Even when you don’t know the words to say, He will send them. Be bold, because He is on your side. The Maker of the universe is rooting for you. Don’t let your physical desires get in the way of a relationship with a Savior who gave His all.
And those are my cup of thoughts tonight.