John Newton (b. London, England, 1725; d. London, 1807) was born into a Christian home, but his godly mother died when he was seven, and he joined his father at sea when he was eleven. His licentious and tumultuous sailing life included a flogging for attempted desertion from the Royal Navy and captivity by a slave trader in West Africa. After his escape he himself became the captain of a slave ship. Several factors contributed to Newton's conversion: a near-drowning in 1748, the piety of his friend Mary Catlett, (whom he married in 1750), and his reading of Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ. In 1754 he gave up the slave trade and, in association with William Wilberforce, eventually became an ardent abolitionist. After becoming a tide… Go to person page >
For mercies countless as the sands. J. Newton. [Praise.] Appeared in the Olney Hymns, 1779, Book i., No. 50, in 5 stanzas of 4 lines, and based upon Psalms cxvi. 12,13. Its use both in the older, and in modern collections both in Great Britain and America, is extensive. Original text in Hymnal Companion, No. 501.
The authorship of this hymn is sometimes attributed to W. Cowper, the poet, but in error. It is not given in any of the collected works of Cowper, and his signature in the Olney Hymns "C" is not added to this hymn, in any edition with which we are acquainted, and certainly not in the first of 1779. We attribute it to J. Newton on the ground that all unsigned hymns in the Olney are claimed by him.