John Newton (1725 – 1807)
This year sees the 200th anniversary of the death of John Newton. Geoff Thomas here tells the story of the man who “God didn’t give up on.”
The promise Lord, and Thy command,
Have brought us here today;
And now we humbly waiting stand
To hear what Thou wilt say.
Meet us, we pray, with words of peace,
And fill our hearts with love;
That from our follies we may cease,
And henceforth faithful prove.
John Newton was born in 1725 in an obscure middle-class home and died as the most well-known preacher in the world on December 21st 1807. His Jesuit-trained father, also named John Newton, was a ship’s captain. When his son had reached his 23rd year the father was appointed the governor of a British fort in Hudson’s Bay, Canada, and there, two years later, John Newton Sr. died. His mother was a nonconformist, a woman who didn’t enjoy good health but had a deeply exercised Christian faith. She prayed for her son from before his birth and made it the chief task of her brief life to nourish her only child and bring him up to know the Lord. She even prayed that he would become a preacher, but she never lived to see her prayers answered, dying when her son was seven years of age. Newton was a bright, intelligent boy. He had learned the Shorter Catechism and the proof texts, all of Isaac Watts’ catechism and children’s hymns before his eighth birthday.
His father soon remarried and his second wife had no more interest in religion than her husband. When a baby boy was born to them, all their love was focused on this child and John was marginalised. His father was Dickensian in his sternness; he broke Newton’s spirit. “He almost made me a dolt,” John said. He began to mix with worldly boys, copying them in their language and behaviour. He spent just two years in school in his entire life, but during that time he readily picked up Latin becoming quite fluent in it. When he was eleven years of age he began sailing back and forth to the Mediterranean, especially to Spain, in his father’s ships. He lived the life of a godless teenager, cursing and blaspheming, but God didn’t give up on him.
His first period of religious concern began in his early teens and John Newton was given to praying, reading the Bible and keeping a diary. It lasted some months, but then he turned his back on religion. God didn’t stop dealing with him. Riding a horse, he was thrown and injured, so there came another time of asking God for mercy, but again these impressions did not last, but God hadn’t given up on him. A year or so went by, and a friend agreed to come with him on a voyage, but John was delayed arriving at the harbour until just after the boat had set sail. The boat capsized when it reached the open sea and his friend was drowned – the boy whose sole reason for being on that ship was Newton’s beseeching. John was heart-broken and fearful at his friend’s funeral service, but the impression did not last long: “I loved sin, and I was unwilling to forsake it.” But God didn’t give up on him.
In his mid-teens he entered a prolonged religious period, doing everything he could to establish his own righteousness, “After the strictest sect of our religion he lived a Pharisee.” He spent the greatest part of every day in reading the Scriptures, meditating, praying, fasting often. He even became a vegetarian for three months. He would hardly answer innocent questions which men asked him for fear of sinning with his lips. He grieved over his earlier falls. He became an ascetic, renouncing ordinary society to avoid temptation. This religion he sustained for two long years, but he later wrote, “It was a poor religion. It left me in many respects under the power of sin and only tended to make me gloomy, stupid, unsociable and useless.”
Then he read a philosophical unchristian book and that had a barren influence on his life so that by seventeen he was back in unbelief, but God still didn’t give up on him. He brought him to Kent where Newton met the Catlett family, friends of his mother, where there lived a pure and holy daughter aged thirteen named Mary. John Newton fell deeply in love with her and for the next seven years – many of which were spent on the other side of the world – he did not pass a single hour of one day without some thoughts of her. Off he went sailing the seas as a seventeen year old, and though making a few feeble efforts to live morally he soon came to adopt the ungodly lifestyle of his friends aboard ship, but God would not give up on him and it was during this time that he brought the famous dream into John Newton’s life.
The dream was this; he was standing on a ship in the harbour at Venice. It was night and he was on watch and as he walked to and fro a mysterious person came to him and presented him with a costly ring charging him to keep it carefully. Let me call this man the Lord of the Ring, though Newton did not refer to him by that phrase. He assured him that while he kept the ring he would be happy and successful, but if he lost it he must expect nothing but misery. John took the ring eagerly enough, but wondered if he would be able to keep it. After a little while a second person, the great enemy of the Lord of the Ring, came on deck, approached him and began to question him about the ring. John Newton told him about how wonderful the ring was, that as long as he hung on to it he would be happy and successful. “Happiness and success from a ring?” the man mocked, “Impossible!” So he argued with John that it was all a fancy. “Throw it away!” At first John Newton was shocked by this but the man kept talking to him showing him the folly of trusting in the ring. The man’s counsels increasingly prevailed, and Newton began to look with growing disdain at the ring until finally he took it off his finger, walked to the edge of the ship and dropped it into the waters.
When the ring hit the sea a volcano exploded on a distant mountain behind Venice and soon all the hills around the city were roaring and crackling in flames. The sight was terrifying and Newton realised his enormous folly. All the mercy God had reserved for him was in God’s gift, and he had listened to the tempter’s voice and thrown it away. “I must go to those flames on that distant mountain,” he vowed, trembling with fear. The dream still went on and on, and Newton did not wake up.
Then a third person appeared – it might have been the Lord of the Ring reappearing, or a second Lord of the Ring, Newton wasn’t sure – and this person walked up to John and asked him why he was so troubled. Newton told him everything, expecting no mercy after such folly. The man told him how foolish he’d been, and then he asked this question, would John Newton be wiser and more responsible if he gave him that ring again. Newton could hardly believe that he was being given another opportunity and could barely say a word. This person, however, dived over the side of the ship and soon bobbed to the surface and climbed on board the ship again bringing the ring with him. The moment he got back on board the hills ceased burning and the volcano died down. “The prey was taken from the hand of the mighty and the lawful captive delivered.” Newton’s fears were all gone and so he walked to the person hand outstretched to get his ring back, but the man simply looked at him. Then he told him that now he couldn’t trust him with the ring. “You might throw it away again.” He then said to John Newton, “I will keep it for you, and whenever it’s necessary I will produce it and show it to you.” The incident with the dream is recorded on pages nineteen to twenty in the first volume of John Newton’s Works in the Banner of Truth reprint.1
When John Newton woke up he was in an indescribable state. He couldn’t sleep or eat or even think straight for two or three days, but – can you believe it? – once again these high religious impressions wore off, and after a while he totally forgot the dream, burying it in his unconsciousness. In fact it was many years before something happened that triggered off the memory of that vivid dream. Back to his midshipman’s duties he returned, sailing with some of the worst villains on the ocean, and doing the most evil acts, but God didn’t give up on him. Newton was still only in his late teens. He was exceedingly rash and impetuous. If some thought or plan came into his mind he immediately went ahead and did it – whatever the consequences might be. If it meant he missed a voyage for which he had great responsibility then he would be flogged or kept in irons in the local jail for the inconvenience he caused his employers – but so be it. He lived for himself and so his heart was full of bitterness and black despair. Wherever he looked he could see nothing but darkness and misery; he said, “I cannot think that any conscience could have been more dreadful than mine. I was tempted to throw myself into the sea, but the hand of God restrained me,” yet he lacked any fear of God or regard for man. The single restraint on his wildness was that love he had for the young girl Mary.
By his defiance and folly John Newton ended up living on the coast of West Africa in Sierra Leone. He had been so unpopular with the captain and the chief mate of the ship on which he was sailing they decided by mutual agreement that he should stay in Africa. He wanted to make his fortune, perhaps in buying and selling slaves. For two years he lived there in utter penury. God dashed in pieces any schemes he had for making money. He was so poor that even the Africans considered themselves too good to speak to him. Those two wretched years are an absolute blank in his life. “I was big with mischief,” he said. There he met other people deeper into evil than himself – one especially, a black woman who was married to a white trader. He had to live in their house with her husband frequently away. She gave him a mat to sleep on and a log for a pillow. When he had a fever he had to plead for a glass of water. She lived in plenty but would give him nothing. He once was given a plate of food, but was so weak he dropped it. She laughed at him but would give him no more. The slaves would creep to him at night and give him some of their own food. When she visited him it was to insult him and she sent her servants to throw limes and even stones at him.
When her husband took him on a voyage with him, he locked him in a cabin and gave him a small portion of rice each day. Newton would bait a hook with some entrails from the chickens they killed (of which he was allowed nothing) and he would fish, and anything he caught he would eat, almost raw. He was dressed only in a shirt and trousers and had to stand and work in the rain in these clothes for forty hours at a time, excessively cold and wet. Then back he went to the master’s house and under the regimen of his wife again. So another year went by in those conditions. His acquaintances were the Africans and increasingly he came under their influence – the charms and amulets they wore for luck, their living just for that day, their communication with the dead, their trust in the guidance given them by fortune tellers and witch doctors. Newton steadily drifted from the reality of his life, accepted his estrangement from God as normal and adopted the amoral lifestyle of these lost primitive people. He established relationships with the men and women there, and began to take up their way of life as his own. Living in Sierra Leone was full of wretched disappointment, “but isn’t that life for everyone everywhere?” he was thinking. “This is merely accepting reality.” Of course it was simply another fantasy and utter escapism, living in Africa with his spiritists and those fleeting relationships. He accepted it as a life at least as good as handling the heartaches that would await him on returning to England. John Newton was giving up on life, but God had not given up on him.
After two years, how frail his contact with England had become! Newton had written one or two letters to his distant father explaining his plight. Those letters actually reached John Newton Sr., which was remarkable, and his father did something about them. He got in touch with a captain who was sailing to West Africa telling him to look out for his son, but when this man arrived in Sierra Leone he couldn’t find any trace of Newton anywhere, and had given up looking for him. Then one day Newton was walking with a companion on a beach and they saw a sail. His friend lit a fire to draw the attention of the lookout, and the boat turned towards land and sent a canoe to investigate. The crew talked with John Newton and his companion on the shore and urged them to come onto the ship. But Newton with his mild-eyed melancholy, living amongst the lotus eaters of west Africa, didn’t know what to do. He was quite indifferent to returning to England, but the captain in the canoe was a wily old bird. “There is a large packet of letters from home for you on the ship,” he lied, “and you have been left an income of £400 a year for the rest of your life” he further lied, “and you shall stay in my cabin for all the journey home without having to do any work.” There was not a word of truth in any of this. But it drew Newton onto the ship and away from Sierra Leone (incidentally the west African community where he lived is today called Newton).
The Beginnings of Conversion
So John Newton got on board the ship and off they went sailing a thousand miles further away from England. He spent a year on board the ship, fixed in all its routine and diet, all so familiar to him. Newton was an angry, bitter, young atheist, saying of himself, “I have never met so daring a blasphemer. Not content with common oaths I daily invented new ones so that even the Captain, who was not a Christian, rebuked me.” They had a disastrous voyage back to Europe through storm after storm, the Captain often telling him that they had a Jonah on board and he was that man. Newton couldn’t take strong drink and when he had a tot or two of rum he would get inebriated. One of these times his hat fell over board and he went clambering over the side to get it – twenty feet above the water, with the tide running strongly. His companions hung on to his coat and jacket and pulled him back in again. Injuries on land, illnesses and licentiousness all characterized those years, without a single stirring of repentance, but God had not given up on him, and the time to favour Newton was drawing near. One day, Omnipotence met with him; God riveted one thought about the Christian faith to his mind, “What if these things should be true?” Later that same day they ran into another tremendous storm. Men were washed overboard; he had to man the pumps for hours; waves broke over his head; he was tied on the deck with a lifeline, and all this time the thought from God throbbed away in his mind – “What if these things should be true?” – while all around him was black unfathomable despair.
On the 21st March 1748, a date he never failed to remember, aged 22 years, the Bible which his mother had taught him, and the word of God he had learned during his time of teenage seriousness, returned to him. What words! Scriptures such as these came back to him: Proverbs chapter one and verses 24 through 31,
But since you rejected me when I called and no-one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you – when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me. Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of the fool.
And then these verses,
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud’ (2 Peter 2:20-23).
He said, “I waited to receive my inevitable doom.” He lived in a state of repentance. It was not for some years that he gained clear views of the infinite righteousness of Jesus Christ his Lord. Looking back years later he wrote, “So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace, for he knows our frame.” But the reality of those words of warning, and of the God who was working in him, was now overwhelming. He began to pray, but he couldn’t call God his Father. He began to think much of Jesus Christ whom he had so often derided, the Saviour who had died for the sake of those who in their distress put their trust in him.
Now his concern was to obtain faith, and he began to read the Bible, and Luke 11:13 came to him with great power:
If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
and John 7:17,
If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.
The boat finally reached landfall in Ireland and by the time he reached there he had seen more than his own need of the pardon of sins; he had seen that this was possible through the obedience and sufferings of Christ. He said,
I stood in need of an Almighty Saviour, and such a one I found described in the New Testament. The Lord had wrought a marvellous thing; I was no longer an infidel: I heartily renounced my former profaneness, and in all appearances I was a new man, yet I was still greatly deficient in many respects. I was little aware of the innate evils of my heart. I had no apprehension of the spirituality and extent of the law of God or of the hidden life of a Christian as it consists in communion with God by Jesus Christ, a continual dependence on him for hourly supplies of wisdom, strength, and comfort. I acknowledged the Lord’s mercy in pardoning my past, but depended chiefly upon my resolution to do better for the time to come, for I had no Christian friend or minister to advise me. I did not hear evangelical preaching or conversation for six years.
He was always on board a ship or travelling to Kent, or at his father’s, or going to the new point of departure. Newton considered that this was the beginning of his return to God, but that he was not yet a believer in the full sense of the term for a considerable time.
Marriage to Mary
John Newton then journeyed to Kent, asked the father of his 18-year-old sweetheart for permission to marry her, and received his consent. Then off he went sailing from Liverpool but it was not long before again he grew slack in his failure to appropriate Christ. His foolish tongue ran away with him; he failed to put on the whole armour of God, and his daily life (except for his profanities which had gone) was almost as bad as before. He went into a course of evil which in the months after the storm he thought he would never take again, but God did not give up on him. God in fact brought a serious illness into his life; Newton almost died of a fever, and he cried to God for mercy and made the most solemn vows of turning to him. He found a quiet place in a jungle and cast himself upon the Lord, that God would do with him as he pleased. Through many dangers he survived the remainder of the voyage and finally the ship returned to Liverpool eight months later. Soon he was back in Kent; it was seven years since his first sight of his betrothed, and on February 1st 1750 Mary and he were married. They had £40 of debt and the clothes they wore and nothing else in the world. Their marriage was to last over 40 years.
But on his first voyage a couple of months after his wedding day he said – can you bear to hear his honesty? – “Alas, I rested in the gift and forgot the Giver. My poor narrow heart was satisfied. A cold and careless frame as to spiritual things took place,” but God refused to give up on him, and once he was aboard another ship sailing away from Liverpool the pain of his absence from Mary was acute. He lived abstemiously on the ship, mortifying every improper emotion, seeking to know the Lord better. This is what he said about the way in which God had dealt with him,
We mustn’t make the experience of others in all respects a rule to ourselves, nor our own a rule to others; yet these are common mistakes, and productive of many more. As to myself, every part of my case has been extraordinary; I have hardly met a single instance resembling it. Few, very few, have been recovered from such a dreadful state; and the few that have been thus favoured have generally passed through the most severe convictions; and, after the Lord has given them peace, their future lives have been usually more zealous, bright, and exemplary than common.
Newton grew increasingly serious and discerning in the faith. He began to keep a diary, and also he found such books as Scougal’s Life of God in the Soul of Man, and Hervey’s Meditations to be helpful. For the next six years he sailed his slave ships back and fore to the West Indies and read the Bible over and over. It was in St Kitts that he spent a month with a Captain Clunie from London who knew the way of God more perfectly. He was the first Calvinistic Christian Newton had met, and they talked together for hours each night until Newton’s heart burned within him. Clunie taught Newton the covenant of grace, and he gave to Newton the addresses of Christians and ministers in London. So John’s understanding of the Christian faith was becoming increasingly clearer.
The Seizure and the Move to Liverpool
In 1754, when he was 29 years of age, married four years, full of plans for his next voyage, Newton suddenly had a seizure while sitting at the tea-table with Mary. He couldn’t move or speak, and when he came around the marks of this fit remained with him and everyone judged his seafaring days were over. In addition, the shock of his illness plunged frail Mary into a prolonged sickness. Newton’s employer was one of his closest friends and he insisted that Newton take a new job as the tide surveyor in Liverpool. To get that job was an extraordinary providence. The Lord Mayor of Liverpool wanted it for one of his nephews, but Newton got it and off they went to live in Liverpool. His job was little more than a sinecure, to attend the tides, visit ships when they arrived, and inspect the vessels in the docks. He had an office, a good fire, fifty or sixty people who were under his command and a six-oared boat with a coxswain to row him across the harbour.
These next nine years were his period of preparation for the ministry. Settled in a community he was able to hear regular preaching in Liverpool from Baptists and Anglicans and Presbyterians. Newton was generous to all who preached the gospel. He became increasingly focused on knowing the Bible, learning Greek, Hebrew (he soon could read the psalms and historical books in the original language fairly easily) and Syriac. Strengthening his Latin and French he read everything he could lay his hands on. This is a list of books Newton himself recorded as having read: Daniel Defoe, Thomas à Kempis, William Beveridge’s sermons on the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, Henry Scougal, Philip Doddridge, James Hervey, Matthew Hale, John Howe, John Owen on Christologia, Alleine, Halyburton, Matthew Henry, Voltaire, Fisher’s Marrow, Calvin’s Institutes, Wesley, Whitefield, Ralph Erskine, Ebenezer Erskine, Blaise Pascal, Robert Leighton, Samuel Walker, Tobias Crisp, Flavel, Alexander Pope, and William Romaine. Newton became fascinated by the conflict between Wesley and Whitefield and read the pamphlets of those men. God was preparing him for the ministry, and what helped him here most of all was the divine provision of a role model, and what a man that was, George Whitefield, who was eleven years older than John.
Newton had heard Whitefield preach in the Tabernacle in London before he went to Liverpool. It was the communion season in that vast building and Newton heard him preach on the Friday and Saturday. Then on Sunday he rose at 4 a.m. and went to the Tabernacle for the 5 a.m. Communion service, allowed to enter when he produced his ticket. A thousand people gathered there – all from different backgrounds and all agreed in the gospel. “Never before had I such an idea and foretaste of the business of heaven,” he wrote. It was a service full of exhortations and encouragements with many intervals for singing. In fact they sang almost twenty times. This Lord’s Supper service lasted for three hours. In the evening he returned to the Tabernacle and now the building was full with five thousand people as well as hundreds standing outside. Whitefield preached on Revelation 21:6, “And he said unto me, It is done, I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.” It was a pressing invitation of the gospel. On the Tuesday again he rose at 4 a.m. and at 5 went to hear Whitefield preach on Psalm 142:7, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name.” Newton said, “The power, the experience, the warmth with which he treated it I can by no means express, though I hope I feel the influence of it. My heart was greatly impressed, and I had little relish for company or food all day.” He said, “I have long entertained a respect for him, and prayed for a blessing on his endeavours for God’s glory, but now I must say, ‘Behold, the one half was not told me.'”
After Newton had been working in Liverpool for a few months George Whitefield came to spend a few days with him and they talked much and he heard Whitefield preach in St. Thomas’s Square to a congregation of perhaps four thousand people. In writing to Mrs. Newton in reference to this visit, John said,
Mr. Whitefield is, as he was formerly, very helpful to me. He warms up my heart, makes me more indifferent to cares and crosses, and strengthens my faith. I have had more of his company here than would have come to my share at London in a twelvemonth. Though some of the wags of my acquaintance have given me the name of ‘young Whitefield,’ from my constant attendance upon him when he was here, it does not grieve me; and perhaps if they would speak the truth, they do not think the worse of me in their hearts. I find I cannot be consistent and conscientious in my Christian profession without incurring the charge of singularity. I shall endeavour to act with prudence, and not give needless offence; but I hope I shall never more be ashamed of the gospel.
That was in the year 1757, and for the rest of his life John Newton varied little from George Whitefield in his methods of evangelism and theology. The major difference between the two men was that Whitefield itinerated while Newton was established in the pulpits of two congregations.
John Newton was such a generous-spirited man, for example, he maintained an unbroken correspondence with John Wesley. He once had heard Wesley preach on perfection in Liverpool and he wrote to him and expressed his disagreement with what Wesley had said. Then he added this;
I would rather pray for and press to nearer advances towards perfection than fight and dispute against it. I am sure that to keep the commandments, redeem the time, to abstain from all appearances of evil is the best way to maintain light and joy and communion with the Lord; yet after all I expect to be saved as a sinner, and not as a saint.
Again you find that generosity of spirit after hearing old Richard Cecil preach. He wrote to Mary saying:
I heard him at St. Antholin’s. He is a good speaker and a good preacher for a young man – for young men, not having had time to be duly acquainted with the depths of the heart and the depths of Satan, cannot ordinari1y be expected to speak with so much feeling and experience as they who have been in many conflicts and exercises. I love young preachers, for they are sprightly, warm, and earnest. I love old preachers, for they are solid, savoury, and experimental. So I love them all, and am glad to hear all as occasion offers. But I own I like the old wine best. It is a mercy that the Lord not only gives us food but such a variety that every one in his turn may have his palate pleased if he be not quite unreasonable and dainty indeed.
It would have been the example of the Anglican Whitefield that kept Newton from becoming a dissenter. For the next seven years in Liverpool he studied, sat under the best ministries and prepared himself to become a preacher. In 1764, at 39 years of age, he became curate in Olney where he was to remain for sixteen years. Six years after his ordination in Olney, Whitefield died; Newton was to outlive him by 37 years. 1764 was also the year he published his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of **********. This book introduced him to the evangelical church; it went through ten British and eight American editions before the end of the century. Within three years there was a Dutch edition. It was exceptionally popular in Scotland.
Newton the Olney Preacher
How was Newton as a preacher? You would not buy his Works in order to peruse the sermons, however the letters, hymns and the biography are not to be missed. Josiah Bull, his best biographer, said of his preaching, “He was not eloquent. He had neither grace in his manner nor music in his voice to recommend him. His sermons were not the fruit of great study; indeed his preparation for the pulpit was too often very imperfect.”1 He was short of stature, bald and a little rotund; he was short-sighted and so had to look down at his notes. Yet he preached to large congregations of mature and intelligent Christians who hung on his lips and went away fed. His strengths lay in his sympathy and compassion. He could speak to the affections. He was a restored prodigal and listening to him his hearers believed that they too might be reconciled to the Father. William Jay of Bath loved his company. He was witty and humorous but perfectly innocent and harmless. One day a strong sneeze shook off a fly which had been standing on his bald head. He said, “Now if that fly keeps a diary he’ll write, ‘Today a terrible earthquake.'”
His sermons were written in notebooks and many of them are still in existence. None of them has ever been published, but in the last couple of years through the John Newton Project Marylynn Rouse of Stratford is transcribing them and many extracts from 105 sermons have appeared for the first time in the Day One publication 365 Days with Newton.
Newton’s Letters2, 3
Newton began to write. His first contribution to the Gospel Magazine appeared in the form of a letter on the theme of ‘Controversy.’ After that he regularly wrote articles generally in the form of letters for the magazine. Sometimes he sent to the editor a personal letter to be published, for example, he writes to one correspondent, “I send these thoughts to you, not by the post, but through the press, because the exercise of which you speak is not peculiar to you or me, but more or less the burden of all who are spiritually minded.” Through the columns of the Gospel Magazine people heard of him, read his counsels and wrote to him with their questions. The postal system within England was very good. After he had been in Olney ten years he gathered together twenty-six letters and a few hymns and printed them as Omicron’s Letters. Six years later he published Cardiphonia, or the Utterance of the Heart; in the course of a Real Correspondence (1780). These consisted of twenty-four letters. The letters made his reputation; he became the acknowledged spiritual director and pastor of the Evangelical Revival. From this time on he had difficulty keeping up with his personal correspondence. He was always working at answering a stack of fifty or sixty unanswered letters. The only other volume of letters he printed was an edited version of letters to his wife after her death, but through the nineteenth century many more letters were published by the descendants of the people who had received them from him. There are still letters of Newton appearing for the first time in our day.4
The Hymns and Poems
Three years after Newton began his ministry in Olney the poet William Cowper settled there, and their friendship with all its incredible demands was cemented. The church grew; new galleries had to be built and weekly prayer meetings were held. Singing together was part of their formal and informal meetings, and it became their goal to write a new hymn for each one. This was especially so in the 1770’s. Some of these were published in the Gospel Magazine. In his children’s meetings Newton wrote hymns based on passages of Scripture for them to learn. Newton had written some hymns a little earlier in Liverpool. The first edition of the Olney Hymns was published in 1779, containing 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton. Among Newton’s hymns was my favourite hymn, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and among the rest of his hymns,
Come, my soul, thy suit prepare,
Behold the throne of grace!,
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound),
For mercies, countless as the sands,
One there is, above all others,
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Hark, my soul! it is the LORD,
’Tis a point I long to know,
In evil long I took delight,
Approach, my soul, the mercy–seat,
I asked the LORD that I might grow,
Let us love, and sing, and wonder,
What think ye of Christ is the test.
Amongst the more unfamiliar I appreciate these four:
1. How tedious and tasteless the hours,
When Jesus no longer I see;
Sweet prospects, sweet birds, and sweet flowers
Have lost all their sweetness with me;
The midsummer-sun shines but dim,
The fields strive in vain to look gay;
But when I am happy in him,
December’s as pleasant as May.
1. What contradictions meet in ministers’ employ;
It is a bitter sweet, a sorrow full of joy;
No other post affords a place for equal honour or disgrace!
2. Who can describe the pain which faithful preachers feel,
Constrained to speak in vain to hearts as hard as steel!
Or who can tell the pleasures felt, when stubborn hearts begin to melt!
1. Kindle, Saviour, in my heart,
A flame of love divine;
Hear, for mine I trust thou art,
And sure I would be thine:
If my soul has felt thy grace,
If to me thy name is known,
Why should trifles fill the place
Due to thyself alone?
2. ‘Tis a strange mysterious life
I live from day to day;
Light and darkness, peace and strife,
Bear an alternate sway:
When I think the battle won,
I have to fight it o’er again;
When I say I’m overthrown,
Relief I soon obtain.
3. Often at the mercy-seat,
While calling on thy name,
Swarms of evil thoughts I meet,
Which fill my soul with shame;
Agitated in my mind,
Like a feather in the air,
Can I thus a blessing find?
My soul, can this be prayer?
4. But when Christ, my Lord and friend,
Is pleased to show his power,
All at once my troubles end,
And I’ve a golden hour:
Then I see his smiling face,
Feel the pledge of joys to come:
Often Lord, repeat this grace,
Till thou shalt call me home.
1. To those who love the Lord I speak;
Is my Beloved near?
The Bridegroom of my soul I seek,
Oh! when will He appear?
2. Though once a man of grief and shame,
Yet now He fills a throne,
And bears the greatest, sweetest name,
That earth or heaven have known.
It could take him a week to write one hymn, and when he was involved in the composition he hardly had time for anything else. Newton saw himself as a journeyman not a master; a skilled versifier, not a sophisticated poet. He thought he had a mediocre talent. I don’t think so. Some of his hymns have too much doggerel, but his best don’t contain a redundant word; they retain their freshness after being sung over and over again. Who could ever grow weary of singing, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”? Consider this phrase in the hymn; it is elegant evangelicalism and great theology, “But when I see Thee as Thou art, I’ll praise Thee as I ought.” Those are not the words of a bluff sailor but a highly educated and spiritually minded poet. He has learned that turn of phrase from the Shorter Catechism, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.
Newton always describes with great honesty the fundamental Christian experience of God’s grace. The gospel is plain and so hymns must be plain too. John could universalize his own experience better than any other hymnist. Newton’s Calvinism gives his hymns a self-examinatory and plaintive quality, more reticent or cautious in comparison with Wesley’s affirmatory style; for example, Newton does not seem to expect immediate deliverance from his struggles. How often have the following poems done pastoral and homiletical work for us – “I asked the Lord that I might grow,” and “Tis a point I long to know,” but we would not sing either.
John Newton and William Cowper
The friendship between Newton and Cowper is one of the most beautiful anywhere recorded in Church history. Newton was aged forty-two, and Cowper, thirty-five, when they first met, and they were destined to spend the next twelve years together.
Newton later wrote of the commencement of their friendship:
The Lord who had brought us together had so knit our hearts and affections that for nearly twelve years we were seldom separated for twelve hours at a time when we were awake and at home. The first six years I passed in daily admiring and trying to imitate him . . . I can hardly form an idea of a closer walk with God than he uniformly maintained. Communion with God and the good of His people seemed to be the only objects he had in view from the beginning to the end of the year . . .
If you have visited Olney today you might well suppose that it has always been a sleepy-backwater, away from the traffic of the M1, and with few people moving in its quiet streets. You might think that it was like this two hundred years ago. Such, however, was not the case. Two hundred years ago, in coaching days, Olney, with its lace-making, was a bigger, busier and noisier place than today; certainly its public houses, interspersed between thatched houses and cottages, were more numerous. Iain Murray has written,
The children were not only numerous but also rowdy and wild, which was no wonder when we read that on one occasion a mob of adults threatened Newton’s vicarage with violence. Of those who came to the high-steepled church beside the Ouse, more were there to ‘stare and gape’ than to worship, while hidden away in abject poverty were the aged and infirm who approached death with sullen apprehension. To be sure, Newton was not without the ‘praying few’ whom he greatly prized. Even so with so much work on his hands he needed a helper and this is what Cowper now became. As Newton’s ‘auxiliary’ the poet took up the care of the poor, visited the sick and dying, journeyed with Newton in the evenings to some preaching engagements and was always present at the meetings for prayer held in the ‘Great House’. In public prayer, Newton says of his friend, ‘He spoke with self-abasement and humiliation of spirit, yet with that freedom and fervency as if he saw the Lord whom he addressed face to face’. Similarly Andrew Fuller later wrote: ‘I know a person who heard him pray frequently at these meetings, and have heard him say, “Of all the men that I ever heard pray, no one equalled Mr Cowper.”’ It is not then surprising that, as Richard Cecil tells us, ‘Mr Newton used to consider him as a sort of curate.’ ‘The Lord evidently sent him to Olney,’ wrote Newton, ‘where he has been a blessing to many, a great blessing to myself.’5
Then mysteriously William Cowper entered that long and serious depression. One Easter Monday Fair Day he came to the vicarage for the evening, but, disturbed by the noise in the Market Square outside his window, Cowper wouldn’t leave and he stayed there for fourteen months. One October, Newton and his wife took a much-needed break from Olney, leaving the heroic Mrs. Unwin in charge of the home. On their return journey to Olney the news was sent to them that Cowper had attempted to make away with himself. “We met an intimation on the road that greatly alarmed us,” Newton recorded, “I never returned home under such anxiety of spirit.” A few days later he wrote further: “My mind much embarrassed about my friend, whose disorder has become much more tumultuous and troublesome.”
Tragic indeed were Cowper’s delusions at this stage – everybody hated him, and chiefly Mary Unwin; John Newton was not Newton at all but an impersonator; his food was poisoned; and, worse than all, God had cast him off forever! Perhaps suicide would satisfy God, perhaps God was calling him to it as he once called Abraham to offer his son? Amidst these terrible hallucinations, Cowper’s nearest approach to sanity was in sleep.
It is beyond dispute that the ultimate cause of the type of mental illness which Cowper suffered is shrouded in mystery. His affliction was a constitutional one but as for its cause nothing is certain. We stand in the presence of the unknown. The awareness that God knew, and appreciated the burdens under which his reason reeled, was in all probability the inspiration for the last hymn which Cowper contributed to the Olney collection as the storm closed about him.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Certainly the treatment Cowper received was the most enlightened of that age. He daily spent time in the garden and was encouraged to work there in the summer. They understood the therapy of having animals around – there were the tame hares which bounded round the house. There was carpentry, painting, long walks, indoor shuttlecocks. They tried electric shock treatment. They would sit by the fire in the evenings and Mrs Unwin would do her needlework and he would read. Cowper was encouraged to write his poetry. It was very enlightened medical care.
In John Newton God gave Cowper the wisest pastor in the nation with the soundest theology, but still some mental illnesses are sadly incurable except by the direct intervention of God. One thing is clear, that if John Newton’s evangelical Calvinism could not deliver Cowper from his depression it nevertheless mitigated the effects of the illness and administered more comfort to him than any other form of Christian teaching. Cowper’s six years with John Newton in Olney were the happiest years of his life.
Shortly after Cowper’s death John Newton wrote this letter to a friend,
My most dear and intimate friend, William Cowper, has obtained a release from all his distresses. I preached a funeral sermon for him on the 11th instant from Ecclesiastes chapter two verses two and three, ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.’
Why was he who both by talents and disposition seemed qualified, if it were possible, to reform the age in which he lived, harassed by distresses and despair, so that the bush which Moses saw all in flames was a fit emblem of his case? The Lord’s thoughts and ways are so much above ours, that it becomes us rather to lie in the dust in adoration and silence than to inquire presumptuously into the grounds of his proceedings. It may reconcile us to lighter troubles, when we see what the Lord’s most favoured and honoured servants are appointed to endure. But we are sure that He is rich enough, and that eternity is long enough to make them abundant amends for whatever his infinite wisdom may see meet to call them to, for promoting his glory in the end.
The Call to London
In 1779 the call to the city of London, the greatest city in the world, was irresistible. At 54 years of age Newton became the rector of St Mary Woolnoth just by the Bank of England in the heart of the city’s ‘square mile’ and remained there until his death twenty-eight years later. St Mary Woolnoth was designed by the famous pupil of Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and is the only Hawksmoor church in the City of London. There was a strong company of evangelical preachers in London at that time, but Newton was the acknowledged patriarch. Whitefield’s Tabernacle still ministered to thousands. A few years after he began his ministry in London Charles Simeon commenced and continued a similar ministry in Holy Trinity in Cambridge.
John Newton’s services were always packed with people; initially more cautious in his Sunday morning services to his own parishioners he preached fully at three weekly services. Then on Tuesday evenings and Saturdays he held open-house sessions which he once described as being for ‘Parsons, Parsonets, and Parsonettas.’ The young William Jay went along to a ‘kind of open breakfast’ whenever he was visiting London. Newton’s conversations were recorded in something like a ‘Table Talk’. Every two weeks Newton attended and contributed to the Eclectic Society in Aldersgate Street.6 All denominations heard his preaching, MPs, bankers, Henry Thornton, and Hannah More (who had been converted through reading one of his books of letters). William Carey en route to India heard him preach in St Mary Woolnoth. Here he preached his famous series of sermons based on the libretto of Handel’s Messiah,7 and after one of these sermons William Wilberforce came to him for counsel. From that church he and Wilberforce worked together to end the slave trade.
The subsequent history of the church is sad. The church underwent major changes in the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th century; it was proposed for demolition on several occasions but was saved each time. Its galleries were removed by a certain William Butterfield in 1876, who thought they were unsafe, and a number of other significant changes were made at the same time. In the 1890s the Bank tube station was built beneath the church. The railway company was given permission to demolish the church, but public outcry forced them to reconsider: the company undertook to use only the subsoil instead. The crypt was sold to the railway and the bones were removed for reburial at Ilford.
The only services held in the church today are on Tuesdays at 1.10 p.m. – a Eucharist – and Fridays at 8 a.m. – a Mass Eucharist – and also on some feast days, but nearby are the churches of St Helen’s Bishopsgate and the Free Church of Scotland congregation at St Botolph’s in Aldersgate Street. both of which preserve the testimony of John Newton.
John Newton’s Death
After 1800 his sight and hearing declined, but people still came to see and hear him. In the months before his death he was confined to his room. Sometimes he would speak with his usual pleasantry, even of his imminent death; “I am like a person going on a journey in a stage-coach, who expects its arrival every hour, and is frequently looking out at the window for it.” And at another time, when asked how he was, Newton replied: “I am packed and sealed, and waiting for the post.” Yet he was always aware of his own sinfulness. A person remarked, “I’ve found your writings so useful.” Newton curtly replied: “I need none of these sweetmeats.”
William Jay visited him shortly before he died. He was hardly able to speak, but he said to Jay, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” Then he said to Jay “Didn’t you, when I saw you at your house in Bath, desire me to pray for you? Well, then, now you must pray for me.”
About a month before Mr. Newton’s death he said, “It is a great thing to die, and when flesh and heart fail, to have God for the strength of our heart, and our portion for ever.” Someone replied: “The Lord is gracious”; he answered: “If it weren’t so, how could I dare to stand before him?”. The Wednesday before he died, he was asked if his mind was comfortable; Newton replied: “I am satisfied with the Lord’s will.” On the evening of Monday, December 21st, John Newton died, in his eighty-third year. He was buried in St. Mary Woolnoth, in the vault which contained the remains of Mrs. Newton and his niece, Miss Eliza Cunningham.
John Newton’s coffin and that of his wife lay undisturbed until 1893. Both the Earthen Vessel and the Friendly Companion for 1893 reported that the church of St. Mary Woolnoth had become unusable because of “noxious smells” emanating from the crypt below the church. An “Order in Council” was made for the removal of “some 3,000 bodies” to Ilford cemetery so that the church could be used again for public worship. As the coffins were being removed, those of John and Mary Newton were discovered resting one on top of the other immediately below the communion table. Hasty action being taken by W. H. Collingridge, the then owner and publisher of the Gospel Magazine, prevented their being taken to Ilford. A special “Order in Council” was obtained to enable the remains to be taken to Olney where they were re-interred on Wednesday, 25th January 1893. The Gospel Magazine reported, at length, the details of the re-internment, including an address which would have been given by David Doudney, then editor of the magazine, had not extreme age prevented his doing so (he was 82 years old which, in those far-off days was considered to be ancient).
. . . The sentences at the graveside were impressively read by the Vicar, and the coffins were then slowly lowered into the grave. The grave is the family grave of the father of Mrs. Newton, and lies in a sheltered corner a few yards away from the east end of the church.
Newton composed the following epitaph for himself, which he wished to be inscribed on a plain marble tablet in the church. You may read it there today. He requested no other monument, and no inscription but this one. So with these words John Newton commemorated the great grace of God shown to him:
JOHN NEWTON, CLERK, ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE, A SERVANT OF SLAVES IN AFRICA, WAS, BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST, PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED, AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH HE HAD LONG LABOURED TO DESTROY. HE MINISTERED NEAR XVI YEARS AS CURATE AND VICAR OF OLNEY IN BUCKS, AND XXVIII AS RECTOR OF THESE UNITED PARISHES. ON FEBRUARY THE 1ST 1750 HE MARRIED MARY, DAUGHTER OF THE LATE GEORGE CATLETT, OF CHATHAM, KENT, WHOM HE RESIGNED TO THE LORD WHO GAVE HER ON DECEMBER 15th 1790.
With a Biographical Introduction by Andrew Bonar
This year sees the 200th anniversary of the death of John Newton. Geoff Thomas here tells the story of the man who “God didn’t give up on.” The promise Lord, and Thy command, Have brought us here today; And now […]
John Newton's Letters to John Ryland, Jr.
This year sees the 200th anniversary of the death of John Newton. Geoff Thomas here tells the story of the man who “God didn’t give up on.” The promise Lord, and Thy command, Have brought us here today; And now […]
- The Banner of Truth, No. 96 (September 1971), p. 19.
Notes of the Discussions of The Electic Society London During the Years 1798 - 1814
This year sees the 200th anniversary of the death of John Newton. Geoff Thomas here tells the story of the man who “God didn’t give up on.” The promise Lord, and Thy command, Have brought us here today; And now […]
- See the article by Harold Gibson on the Banner of Truth website, John Newton and Handel’s Messiah