Joe Musser’s fictionalized account of the life of John Newton, The Infidel, traces his development from an atheistic slave trader to a minister and abolitionist. Despite the religious teachings of his mother, Abigail, and the support of the Catletts, Newton drifts from the straight and narrow after his mother’s death and his father’s speedy remarriage. His father, stern and aloof, and his stepmother, soon preoccupied with her own children, abandon Newton emotionally, and he is soon involved with unsavory companions. When he turns eleven, his father takes him along on his ship as a member of the crew, but at fourteen he is back home again, where he has three close brushes with death. After a year in Spain on business, for which he proves ill suited, he returns home, and after his father’s retirement from the sea, Newton serves on a ship captained by one of his father’s friends. Though he continues to read the Bible, Newton becomes a drunkard, brawler, and shirker. He is torn between temptation and his mother’s teaching, but in Lord Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), which made people the judge of right and wrong, Newton finds a replacement for the Bible.
His father, desirous of seeing Newton established, secures him a post on a vessel bound for Jamaica, where he can make his fortune, but Newton meets Polly Catlett before he is to ship out and decides not to go to Jamaica. He spends a year at sea, returns home, and again misses the sailing of his ship. On a spontaneous trip to see Polly, he is caught by a press gang and is assigned to five years aboard the Harwich, a British naval vessel. Fellow midshipman James Mitchell and Newton discuss Shaftesbury’s ideas, and Mitchell persuades Newton to become a freethinker, to deny the existence of God, and, implicitly, to ignore his mother’s teachings. To win a wager, Newton destroys the Christian faith of shipmate Job Lewis. After the voyage is over, Newton returns to see Polly, whose father begins to sour on the unreliable young man, who once again shirks his responsibilities and is charged with desertion and flogged for his crime. By a stroke of luck (or divine intervention) he is freed of his five-year stint on the Harwich when he is exchanged for a man on...
(The entire section is 940 words.)