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Five Examples of Amazing Grace in the Life of John Newton

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Date October 8, 2019

It is nearly three hundred years since the birth of John Newton and we do well to pay our little tribute to his worthwhile life.

In his day Newton was famous for five things — he was an outstanding example of a converted infidel, he was a great hymn-writer, he was a wise spiritual counsellor, he had true charity for all Christians, and his personality had an unconscious godliness about it. All these are worth our study.

1. Newton was an outstanding example of a converted infidel

When only six Newton lost his mother, but she left him two great possessions, the ability to read and a head-knowledge of God. She had taught him to read fluently and he remained bookish all his days, and she had taught him about God and his ways, teaching he never quite forgot. She had herself been a Dissenter attending Dr David Jennings’ Congregational church in London.

When only eleven Newton was taken to sea by his father, who captained a ship trading in the Mediterranean. Unhappily, his father, who had remarried, never gave Newton the impression of really loving him, which would have meant so much to an only, motherless child as quiet as Newton was. With his father Newton made five voyages to the Mediterranean, during which, it seemed, his soul was a spiritual battleground; for on the one hand he learned to curse and to blaspheme, and on the other he three or four times made serious attempts at moral and religious reform, becoming in the course of them a vegetarian and an ascetic.

When seventeen Newton met Mary Catlett, a 13-year-old distant relation, and fell in love with her. The memory of her helped Newton through the next seven years and proved a somewhat restraining influence on his actions. At the age of eighteen Newton was press-ganged into the navy. His father’s influence caused him to be made a midshipman, but a year later he was publicly flogged and demoted for deserting his ship. In disgrace he sailed to Madeira, where he was suddenly allowed to transfer to another ship, which was bound for Sierra Leone. Here Newton decided to work for a white slave trader.

A terrible year followed. The African mistress of his new master treated him with cruelty and contempt, especially when he was struck down with a fever. He had difficulty then in getting even a drink of cold water. Even the African slaves secretly brought him food on occasion. Half starving, Newton used to steal out at night to feed on the raw roots of vegetables. His white master, believing the worst about him, locked Newton to the deck of the ship when he went ashore, and in his ragged clothes Newton bore for hours on end the lashing of torrential rains. His spirit broken, Newton’s only relief in this West African period was to draw mathematical diagrams on the sand.

Finally, a ship’s captain from England, acting on his father’s request, took Newton aboard as his guest. Newton’s lot was now pleasant, yet he was ‘so daring a blasphemer’ that he daily invented new oaths and, though not fond of drink himself, sometimes initiated daring drinking parties among his friends. But on the long voyage home the ship encountered a frightful storm and was badly damaged. In the day of trouble Newton began to think of, if not to call on, the Lord. In between times when he was manning the pump, he remembered the Bible warnings memorised as a child. A little later he began to pray and to examine the New Testament more carefully and ‘to think of that Jesus [he] had so often derided’.

The tide of the battle for Newton’s soul slowly turned with the dawning of gospel light, though for another six years he did not understand or enjoy evangelical preaching or conversation. Finally, the irresistible grace of God (or, as Newton preferred to say, the invincible grace of God) won the day — the crisis of capturing the citadel of Newton’s soul was over and the life-long process of mopping-up operations was begun.

Newton regarded himself as ‘one of the most astonishing instances of the forbearance and mercy of God upon the face of the earth.’ But he was on guard against complacency and forgetfulness. After the publication of his autobiography An Authentic Narrative he wrote, ‘The people stare at me . . . and well they may. I am indeed a wonder to many, a wonder to myself, especially I wonder that I wonder no more.’

2. Newton was a great hymn writer

In all, Newton published nearly a million words. Among all the letters and books were 280 hymns. Though this number was small compared with Charles Wesley’s 6,500 and Isaac Watts’ 600, several of Newton’s hymns have stood the test of two centuries and their changing tastes.

The Dissenters and Methodists in particular were keen on composing spiritual songs in eighteenth-century England. Singing was part of the Evangelical Revival. When thirty Newton attended in Liverpool, where he was the tide surveyor, an early morning meeting taken by Whitefield, with whom he enjoyed an acquaintance. Though the Anglican prayer book was used at the meeting, Newton recalled that there were ‘many little intervals for singing hymns — I believe nearly 20 times in all.’ When thirty-nine and finally, despite his lack of formal education, an Anglican minister himself, Newton encouraged his parishioners to sing and began to compose hymns for them, some of which fitted in with his sermons. This was at Olney, a large village 50 miles north-west of London.

William Cowper, soon to be the most famous Christian poet of his day in England, deliberately moved to become Newton’s near neighbour. The two men, so different in background, respected and loved each other and for nearly twelve years met almost every day. Newton encouraged Cowper to write hymns for his congregation to sing at their Tuesday evening prayer meetings. The important upshot was the publication in 1779 of the Olney Hymns, a hymnal that sold by the thousand. Of its 348 hymns Newton wrote as many as 280. Cowper’s was a relatively small contribution because for the second time in his life he endured a long period of depression or insanity which at times included suicidal bids.

Some of Newton’s hymns familiar to us are now in a truncated form, among them the lovely Christ-centred hymn:

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!

Then it was Newton who wrote that noble hymn of praise,

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God!

also the much-used hymn, ‘Come, my soul, thy suit prepare’ with its challenging second verse:

Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such
None can ever ask too much.

Then there is the familiar hymn,

Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat,
Where Jesus answers prayer

which, with many others, was written expressly for the weekly prayer meeting.

Finally, we should mention the hymn that gives our article its title, and that was popularised by the bagpipes of the Royal Scots Guards’ Band

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound!)
That sav’d a wretch like me!

‘If Watts, Doddridge, the Wesleys, Martin Madan and others introduced the evangelical hymn into the Church’s worship, Newton and Cowper fixed the type of the evangelical hymn.’ The Countess of Huntingdon and Rowland Hill were among the many who used the Olney hymns. Great too was their popularity in nineteenth-century America. Newton may have lacked the high poetic gift and imagination of Isaac Watts, but his hymns are clear and convincing. ‘Simple, direct and Christian. That was John Newton, and that is why his hymns live.’

3. Newton was a wise spiritual counsellor

Newton’s counselling was done through two main channels — letters and private interviews.

Fancy asking your correspondents to return your letters to their writer so that he could publish them! But Newton felt he had a ‘call’ to write letters and published 199 of them as a result. In 1759 Newton could say ‘I number my Christian correspondents among my principal blessings — a few judicious, pious friends, to whom, when I can get leisure to write, I send my heart by turns.’ Five years later he complained that his correspondence was so large that it almost engrossed his time. At one time 60 letters lay on his desk awaiting an answer. At the end of his life Newton could say of all the letters he had written ‘Yes, the Lord saw I should be most useful by them.’

Most of Newton’s letters appeared in the volume entitled Cardiphonia. Marked by a serious concern to impart spiritual teaching and advice, they certainly proved to be popular and were translated into German and Dutch. One young Scot, thinking from the book’s title (translated ‘The Utterance of the Heart’) that it was a novel, bought a copy of Cardiphonia for his circulating library in Jamaica and became a Christian through reading it. This was John Aikman, instrumental in the awakening in North Scotland of 1797 and for 33 years a useful Congregational minister in Edinburgh.

These letters, some of which are almost 5,000 words long, were written to a variety of people. These included Newton’s brother-in-law, Newton’s servant, ministers of different denominations, the aunt of William Wilberforce, Thomas Scott and Lord Dartmouth. Six years younger than Newton, the Earl of Dartmouth was the leading aristocrat converted in the salons of the Countess of Huntingdon. Politically he rose to be the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In 1764 he offered Newton the curacy at Olney and then, as his patron, introduced him to John Thornton, reputedly the country’s richest merchant and the ‘Nuffield of the Evangelical Revival.’

Newton also excelled at personal counselling. In 1774 a young curate was ashamed to learn that two of his dying parishioners had been visited several times by Newton from a neighbouring parish when he himself had not visited them once. Later the curate tried to draw Newton, whom he held in ‘sovereign contempt’ as a Methodist or Evangelical Anglican, into controversy, first in a room full of ministers and then in correspondence. But, as the curate expressed it, Newton ‘prudently declined the discourse; but a day or two after, he sent me a short note, with a little book for my perusal. This was the very thing I wanted; and I gladly embraced the opportunity, which, according to my wishes, seemed now to offer, God knoweth, with no inconsiderable expectations, that my arguments would prove irresistibly convincing, and that I should have the honour of rescuing a well-meaning person from his enthusiastical delusions.’

The two men exchanged several letters and in time became friends, though the young curate was still ashamed to be caught in Newton’s company because of his ‘fanatical’ sermons, which he could not really understand. However, in the end it was the curate who changed his religious views and became a Christ-honouring, Bible-believing, personal salvation-insisting Evangelical.

This man was Thomas Scott, the rough diamond among English Evangelicals, who started life as a grazier and became a scholar whose Bible commentary was second in popularity only to Matthew Henry’s. Scott’s Force of Truth related with candour the change in his life style and rivalled Newton’s own Authentic Narrative as the most notable Evangelical autobiography of the age.

Scott was not the only famous person Newton influenced for God. In 1785 a wealthy and witty young man paced hesitantly past Newton’s London house. Finally he called in and made an appointment for two days later. Even then, as he said, he walked ‘about the Square once or twice before I could persuade myself . . . [to call] upon old Newton.’ To his surprise the visitor was ‘much affected in conversing’ with Newton, finding ‘something very pleasing and unaffected in him.’ Newton impressed him by saying that he had not ceased to pray for him since meeting him as a boy in the home of his Evangelical aunt at Wimbledon, and recommended him to stay on in politics and high society.

What would have happened if that visitor had not plucked up courage to call on Newton must remain among the ifs of history, but call he did, and came to respect Newton as his friend. This man was William Wilberforce, who went on to weave threads of gold into the fabric of English society. In the Spring of 1786 he returned to Parliament (where his close friend William Pitt, the younger, was Prime Minister) a changed man, no longer spiritually depressed but finding a direction to his life and sensing his responsibilities as a Christian politician. In time he became the ‘authentic keeper of the nation’s conscience’ and brought blessing to thousands at home and overseas. At the start of Wilberforce’s campaign of 46 years on behalf of negro slaves, Newton wrote his Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. No doubt this pamphlet partly salved Newton’s bad conscience about the period when he was a slave ship commander and of which he had written ‘I never knew sweeter or more frequent hours of divine communion than in my last two voyages to Guinea . . .’

In 1787 Newton had another visitor of eminence. She had enjoyed Newton’s Cardiphonia — ‘I like it prodigiously; it is full of vital, experimental religion.’ At her first meeting with Newton she talked with him for an hour and ‘came home with two pockets full of sermons.’ Newton soon became this lady’s regular correspondent and adviser. Her name was Hannah More, whose schools in the Mendip Hills of Somerset became famous. As for the many tracts she wrote and got written under the collective title of the Cheap Repository Tracts, whose circulation was about two million in their first year, they helped to counteract the atheistical teaching of Tom Paine and others during the years following the French Revolution.

Another person helped by Newton was a young man who had run away from Glasgow University and his home to London. After four years there, he took his mother’s advice and went along to hear Newton preach in his City of London church near the Bank of England. )He had become rector of St Mary Woolnoth in January, 1780). He at once wrote anonymously to Newton ‘. . . when you spoke I thought I heard the words of eternal life. I listened with avidity, and wish you had preached till midnight . . .’ From his pulpit Newton invited the anonymous letter writer to visit him. Of the ensuing interview the man wrote to his mother ‘I called on him [Newton] . . . and experienced such a happy hour as I ought not to forget. If he had been my father he could not have expressed more solicitude for my welfare. Mr Newton encouraged me much.’ This man was Claudius Buchanan, whom Newton introduced to Henry Thornton, who financed Buchanan’s study for a degree at Cambridge. From 1796 Buchanan served God as an East India Company chaplain in India and as Vice-Provost of Fort William College aided the Baptist William Carey with his great Bible translation work.

John Campbell, a godly young layman in Edinburgh, and William Jay of Bath, an up-and-coming preacher, were other prominent Christians helped by Newton. The former made Newton his spiritual adviser, and the latter, when a mere nineteen years of age and preaching for the first time in Rowland Hill’s London chapel, received words of encouragement from Newton who visited him in the vestry.

The important truth is that Newton was always approachable, but despite his prominence towards the end of his life among the small but influential and growing group of Anglican Evangelicals who formed the Church Missionary Society in 1799, Newton never put on airs. Often dressed in his old blue sea-jacket, he had a smile or a word for any who came to his Sunday services or to his Thursday breakfast parties at home. Furthermore, Newton was worth approaching, for he had an interest in individuals, was blessed with a sense of humour, and drew on his wide experience of life and human nature in counselling people.

4. Newton had true charity for all Christians

In theology Newton called himself ‘an avowed Calvinist’, writing much in the following strain: ‘The Lord has a right to us by creation, by redemption, by conquest, when he freed us from Satan’s power, and took possession of our hearts by his grace; and, lastly, by our own voluntary surrender in the day when he enabled us to fix our choice on himself, as our Lord and our portion.’

But, while a Calvinist, he was by no means an extreme Calvinist. He heard, met and corresponded with John Wesley, for instance. Neither man hid his beliefs from the other, but they expressed their views in a mild manner. Wesley once wrote to Newton, ‘Love is the plainest thing in the world. I know this dictates what you write, and then, what need of ceremony?’ Wisely Newton kept clear of the vicious pamphlet warfare waged in the 1770s after Whitefield’s death between the Calvinists and the Arminians. At Charles Wesley’s request Newton acted at his funeral as one of the pall-bearers. Years before ordination Newton had written, ‘I bless God I am kept from a party spirit, and that I am neither fearful nor desirous of being called after the names of men.’

Newton was a Calvinist but used his Calvinism with wisdom. William Jay recalled Newton as saying, ‘I am more of a Calvinist than anyone else; but I use my Calvinism in my writings and my preaching as I use this sugar [taking a lump, and putting it into his tea-cup, and stirring it, adding] I do not give it alone, and whole; but mixed, and diluted.’

Newton was a Calvinist but realised that even theological beliefs were not the be-all and the end-all of Christianity, for, as he once wrote, ‘Though a man does not accord with my views of election, yet if he gives me good evidence he is effectually called of God, he is my brother.’

Newton was an ordained minister but rejoiced in Christian work done by laymen. His Eclectic Society included a layman among the four founder members and came in time to include Dissenters also. And when hearing of the spiritual awakening brought to the north of Scotland in 1797 by laymen, though Newton warned against preaching without sufficient warrant, he yet rejoiced with all good men at the advance of God’s kingdom, whatever the agents God chose to use. It was Newton’s pithy comment, ‘A fig for forms and names, if the truth is preached and sinners converted!’

By denomination Newton was an Anglican, yet he had sympathy for those Christians in England dubbed Dissenters. His own mother had been one of them. He was offered and seriously considered accepting the pastorates of Congregational and Presbyterian churches in England before being offered the curacy at Olney. He mixed freely with Baptists, especially when at Liverpool and Olney, the latter town being in the strong Baptist country which gave birth to the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792. Newton warned Buchanan in India not to despise the pioneering Baptist missionaries there; he attended the Baptist Association when it was held in Olney and entertained Baptist ministers in his home. There were times too when Newton postponed his own church meetings to enable his parishioners and himself to attend the special services of Dissenters in neighbouring churches. His letters published in Cardiphonia were sent to people of various denominations, Baptists and Moravians included. On occasions Newton worshipped with Moravians and with Independents (or Congregationalists) and once drew up a plan for training Independents for the ministry.

Though a Calvinistic Anglican Evangelical, Newton knew that God cut across denominational boundaries. As he put it to a Presbyterian, ‘How does Christ receive us? Does he wait till we are all exactly of a mind? Does he confine his regards, his grace, his presence, within the wall of a party? Is he the God of the Presbyterians or the Independents only?’ Newton tried to be as broad-minded and as big-hearted as he believed God was. He tried to love all whom he considered true Christians, and once wrote to a friend in Scotland, ‘If you know a Papist who sincerely loves Jesus, and trusts to him for salvation, give my love to him.’

5. Newton’s personality had an unconscious godliness about it

The late Duncan Campbell of Scotland said that the most solemn thing about any man is the unconscious influence of his personality, which daily leads others to God, or away from God. Under the residing Holy Spirit, Newton’s personality came to tell more and more for Almighty God. William Jay’s judgement of Newton was that he was the ‘most perfect instance of the spirit and temper of Christianity I ever knew — shall I say — with the exception? — no, but with the addition of Cornelius Winter!’

Faults and deficiencies Newton undoubtedly had. Some of his friends considered that his ‘real influence at Olney had suffered by over-much familiarity on his part, and from an excess of charitable feeling by which his judgement was sometimes led astray.’ His ministerial friend and biographer Richard Cecil admitted that Newton’s ‘talent did not lie in “discerning of spirits”’. Cecil also lamented that Newton’s sermon preparation was not always adequate and that he did not ‘generally aim at accuracy in the composition of his sermons, nor at any address [skill] in the delivery of them.’ Then it seems as if Newton almost idolised his wife Mary while she was alive, and her memory afterwards. Again, contrary to what his early adventures at sea might suggest, Newton was not of a very adventurous disposition. As he wrote of himself, ‘I have not much of the hero in my constitution’, though he bore the loss of his beloved wife and niece and the physical limitations of his last trying years with persevering fortitude. But Newton had a peace-loving nature and perhaps was sometimes too accommodating and guilty of purchasing peace at too high a price.

Yet even through some of his faults Newton’s love shone brightly. It was because he loved that he was occasionally duped and taken advantage of by those to whom he was kind, deeming the risk of misplacing his trust a risk worth taking. Despite his imperfections as a preacher he was heard by large numbers who respected his Christian character. And his relationship with his wife he could cite as an example of Christian love in marriage.

Like all good Christians, Newton learnt the painful art of self-examination and self-criticism. Recorded as part of his table-talk is the saying ‘I have read of many wicked Popes, but the worst Pope I ever met with is Pope SELF.’ And who would not sympathise with Newton when he tells against himself this incident which occurred soon after he took up residence in London? ‘I was invited to dine with one of my parishioners yesterday. It was the first invitation I had received from any who were not professedly serious. They behaved well. I behaved poorly, for I could not at the first sight introduce the best subject. This is often a hindrance to me; but the Lord can give me further opportunity, and put a word in my mouth some time. Ah! it is a shame to seem so earnest and pressing in the pulpit, and then to be so cold and mealy-mouthed at table.’

Newton had other marks of the Christian who is growing in grace. He was essentially honest. Even when after difficulty he found a bishop to examine him for deacon’s orders, he did not hesitate to ‘dissent from his Lordship upon some points’, for he was ‘resolved not to be charged hereafter with dissimulation . . .’

Newton was also essentially humble and teachable. Success did not go to his head, but sent him to Christ’s feet. He never forgot his former degradation and painted over his study mantelpiece at Olney, where they can be read to this day, the words of Deuteronomy 15:15 — ‘But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.’ And in 1778 he confided to his journal, after breakfasting with Thomas Scott, ‘I think I can see that he has got before me already. Lord, if I have been useful to him, do Thou, I beseech Thee, make him now useful to me.’

Newton was essentially a prayerful minister. He discovered that ‘prayer is the great engine to overthrow and rout my spiritual enemies, the great means to procure the graces of which I stand in hourly need . . . I generally find all my other tempers and experiences to be proportioned to the spirit of my prayers.’

Above all, Newton was essentially loving. He had not only sympathy for but empathy with others, entering into the trials of his parishioners and correspondents, coming alongside them and boarding them with practical help and advice. Helped by Thornton’s money, he gladly entertained on Sundays those Olney parishioners who had come from a distance of six miles or more, and kept an open house for Christians of all ranks and denominations. His first sermon at his London church was on ‘speaking the truth in love’ and in London ‘his largeness of heart seemed but to increase with the demands made upon it.’

In William Jay’s eyes Newton had ‘the tenderest disposition’; in the opinion of Josiah Bull, the grandson of Newton’s close friend, it was Newton’s ‘goodness rather than his greatness that rendered him so especially attractive — the abundance of the grace of God that was in him.’ Freely Newton had received of God’s love, freely he gave of love. Who follows him in this?

This article was first published in the March 1975 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine under the title ‘John Newton Under Amazing Grace’.


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