Wise Counsel – A Review by Ben Ramsbottom
We must confess that we are fascinated with this book. Eighty-three letters by John Newton – and all but ten of them have lain in obscurity in the two hundred years since they were written! What a mercy that they have been found!
John Newton was twenty-five years older than John Ryland, but took a great interest in him and had a great love for him. Ryland (1753-1825) became the Particular Baptist minister at Northampton, and is best known to our readers as the author of “Sovereign Ruler of the skies.” The first letter was written in 1771 and the last in 1803, four years before Newton’s death. Olney, where Newton was a minister in the Church of England, was not far from Northampton – so the friends had frequent opportunities of meeting till Newton was called to St. Mary Woolnoth in London in 1779. There are no letters from Ryland to Newton in existence.
John Newton, of course, is noted as a letter writer, the great letter writer of the Evangelical Revival. These letters touch on a variety of subjects, as well as essentially spiritual ones: the slave trade; immunisation for smallpox; the American War of Independence; the colonisation of Australia; the Particular Baptist mission to India – and then John Ryland’s disappointment in love; his search for a wife; his bereavement.
For those interested in the church of God in the eighteenth century, the letters are most illuminating. Most of the well-known names appear from time to time: John Adams, Berridge, Abraham Booth, Carey, Cowper, Fawcett, Fuller, Grimshaw, Robert Hall, Haweis, Hervey, Rowland Hill, the Countess of Huntingdon; William Huntington, Medley, Romaine, Thomas Scott, Stennett, John Thornton, Toplady, Venn, and, of course, Wilberforce and the Wesleys – all contemporaries!
There is even a mention of Joseph Pickup (p. 271), whom Newton heard profitably when at Liverpool. Exactly who he was does not appear clear in the book, but he was Joseph Piccop (died 1772), the pastor at Bacup after David Crossley, and who lived near the village of Goodshawfold.
As all the letters are printed (not the usual selection of letters), some are much more profitable or much more interesting than others. One or two are outstanding, but there are hidden gems here and there all the way through. We are glad that the little day-to-day details have not been edited out (as in many Victorian books). The book is further enriched by extracts from both Newton’s and Ryland’s diaries.
Wise Counsel is superbly edited by Grant Gordon, who has shown a deep and loving interest, and has spent years in preparing the book. Every person named and every event referred to is identified and explained in a footnote. There is a good introduction and a good conclusion. There is even a heretofore unpublished portrait of John Newton (looking much stouter than in the well-known pictures).
It is well known that over the years John Ryland’s views changed – for want of better words from ‘high Calvinism’ to ‘low Calvinism.’ We do not always agree with Newton’s comments or advice. Over Ryland’s conflict with William Huntington, Newton obviously has only heard one side. The Editor, we think, overemphasises Newton’s sympathy with Ryland’s views. His first letter is not disagreeing with Gill and Brine, but suggesting that Ryland is only young, too dogmatic, and a little harsh.
Similarly, Newton writes highly of Fuller, but it is in regard to Andrew Fuller’s defence of the Godhead of Christ against the unitarianism of Joseph Priestly.
It is very clear that Ryland’s father, the renowned preacher John Collett Ryland (1723-1792), disapproved of his son’s change of opinion. Concerning his son and Andrew Fuller he wrote: ‘The devil threw out an empty barrel for them to roll about, while they ought to have been drinking the wine of the kingdom’ (p. 254). Even Newton wrote to the younger Ryland (p. 215): ‘Beware of pushing points, in which your views are altered to the extreme, by dwelling too constantly upon them. We are very prone to this; as though the danger from the enemy were only on one side.’ He was cautious about Andrew Fuller’s views (p. 217). The Editor obviously favours Ryland’s change of opinion.
When Ryland was appointed Principal of the Baptist College at Bristol, Newton makes it very clear that he is worried about the over-emphasis on learning:
I am not without apprehensions that academical learning may, in time, have such effects among the Baptists as it has already had among some other denominations, and open the door to scepticism. Learning, like riches, may add to usefulness, when sanctified. But, like riches, it exposes to snares and temptations; it is hard to have it without trusting in it (p. 243).
Yet Newton was a classical scholar himself. We found the book hard to put down and were sad when we came to the end.
These are a few of Newton’s ‘gems’:
If we cut out our own crosses We shall find them heavier than his. (p. 40)
Both wind and weather are at the Lord’s command, and he can turn the storm into a calm in a moment. We may therefore safely and confidently leave the government upon his shoulders. (p. 45)
He that walketh humbly walketh surely. (p. 46)
Experience will teach you not to expect that every blossom will prove fruit. (p. 47)
I can sometimes talk loud and look big in the pulpit, but how different a creature am I behind the scenes! Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord. (p. 49)[The Lord] can do without the best of us. (p. 63)
If God has a controversy with us, I can expect no other than that wisdom should be hidden from the wise. (p. 83)
Surely when [the Lord] crosses our wishes it is always in mercy, and because we short-sighted creatures often know not what we ask, nor what would be the consequences if our desires were granted. (p. 99)
Where we are mistaken, a denial is a mercy. (p. 104)
To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription. A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike. (p. 121)
I hope your soul prospers. That is, I hope you are less and less in your own eyes and that your heart is more and more impressed with a sense of the glory and grace of our Lord. (p. 128)
How miserable a portion would the best this life can afford be, without the knowledge of a Saviour! (p. 139)
The skill of the Pilot is best evidenced in a storm, so is the Lord’s wisdom and faithfulness towards his children, and so is the sincerity of their hearts towards him. (p. 153)
To those who feel their own weakness, grace is all-sufficient. (p. 181)
Go whither you have often gone in trouble, and ask counsel of the Lord, and he will direct you. (p. 206)
The Lord is all-sufficient. He can make the hard easy and the bitter sweet, and he does. (p. 246)
I believe the Lord’s word, that he will guide those who simply wait upon him for direction. (p. 275)
I compose my mind by considering all hearts and all things as instruments of him who worketh all things according to the counsel of his own will, and makes all subservient to the fulfilling it. (p. 303)
Sin, my friend, is the great evil. Let us preach against sin, let us cry to the Lord for mercy, let us point to Jesus as the only refuge from the storm, and let us leave the rest to them who know better. (p. 305)
They who live the life will doubtless die the death of the righteous. (p. 311)
To see him as he is, and to be like him! This is worth dying for, and worth living for, till he shall say, ‘Come up hither.’ (p. 336)
John Newton's Letters to John Ryland, Jr.
We must confess that we are fascinated with this book. Eighty-three letters by John Newton – and all but ten of them have lain in obscurity in the two hundred years since they were written! What a mercy that they have been found! John Newton was twenty-five years older than John Ryland, but took a […]
Taken with permission from The Gospel Standard, March 2010.
Hope of the Church October 15, 2021
To help us in the dealings of our lives we should have such a conception of God as not to limit him in our thoughts. When we are in extremity we must not tie him to this thing or to that thing. He can make matter out of nothing. Why should we limit the unlimited […]
The Prayer Meeting September 3, 2021
Why bother coming to the prayer meeting? In the pecking order of many congregations, it is somewhere below the much-lamented evening service. In the priorities of too many Christians, it seems to have little value. It’s the one we can afford to miss. It’s the one to which we don’t, or maybe wouldn’t, take our […]