The free and easy relationship young John Newton enjoyed with his mother stands in marked contrast with the dreadful, distant relationship he endured with his father.
As soon as Captain Newton landed in Wapping after a sea voyage, he would be seen striding through the streets and into the door of his house on Red Lyon Street. Instantly, his son would change from beloved star student to scared cabin boy, as John Sr ran his home as he ran his boats.
The captain demonstrated his patient love again and again in his actions for his son’s benefit later on in their lives, but there was little fatherly affection flowing from the father of John Newton. Though the relationship with his son lacked warmth, Captain Newton was a capable seaman, earning respect from ship owners and fellow captains.
The godly lady, who was young John’s loving shelter from his stern father and the storms of life, was taken from him in 1732. Elizabeth was barely 30 when she was consumed by tuberculosis. Seeking fresh air for her battered lungs, she spent her final days removed from her son in Kent in the home of her distant relatives, the Catletts.
The turmoil swirling in John’s nearly seven-year-old heart must have spiked when his father returned home and then remarried within a space of a few weeks. The dizzy, grieving boy still had his distant father, but now also a stepmother, Thomasina, and a new place to live.
His basic needs were still met, but he lost his mother’s instruction and he gained more freedom to interact with profane children in the new neighbourhood. The character and content of his mother’s lessons began to slip from John’s bright heart and mind, as he spent more time wandering about the streets with other boys. When other half-siblings were added to his home, his parents’ care for him was even more distracted.
John’s only formal education in his entire life was a bad experience at a boarding school for two years in Essex during these days. These were strict and difficult days for John. The first instructor was extremely severe. John felt his young spirit being suffocated. Reading, which he had previously loved, became loathsome.
During his childhood, John had a few amazing experiences which, many years later, he recognised as God’s powerful hand preserving his life.
Sometimes we benefit from such experiences at the time, but at other times we miss the point. John seems to have been the same, benefiting from some of the remarkable events while missing the significance of other events.
Once he was flung from a horse, coming within inches of a freshly cut hedgerow with deadly stakes poking up. For a while, because of the near miss, he tried to curb the profanities he was by then using regularly with his friends, for fear of facing God’s judgement. But it did not take long before he rediscovered his old vocabulary.
On another occasion, he arrived a few minutes too late to join his friend and take a small boat to go on board a man-of-war. He burned in anger on the shore when he realised they had left without him. But that small boat overturned before meeting the warship, and his friend and several others drowned.
When he attended the funeral of his childhood friend, he shook as he realised how easily it could have been him in the casket. Another time, looking through a religious book ignited self-made efforts at religious reformation. But the flame did not last. Some of his religious efforts during his childhood lasted longer than others, but all of them fizzled out eventually.
Four years after John’s mother died, Captain Newton took his son to sea. John was only 11 years old at the time. Over the next six years, he made five Mediterranean voyages.
While his father protected him somewhat from the crew, he had exacting expectations of his son. John did not grow closer to his father on these adventures, but he did learn the way of a seaman.
The reputations sailors often have for saltiness proved true for those around John. The Bible says that we become like those we spend time with (Proverbs 13:20), and John’s case illustrates the Bible’s reliability.
John’s character declined to such a degree that he went from being a follower in wickedness to a leader. Foul language and foul attitudes flowed freely from John’s heart and mouth.
When Captain Newton was away on trips without his son, John ran wild with the boys of his town. Although he did sprinkle in several seasons of self-reformation, they always faded into deeper expressions of his sin.
Once, at a port in Holland, he came upon a philosophical book by the liberal Lord Shaftesbury called Characteristicks. Although it included beautiful expressions of morality, it dislodged morality from religion. Elizabeth Newton’s remaining light in her son’s heart was growing dim.
John later described the book as poison to his soul. He was descending from his early instruction in the Christian faith to deism.
As John was living out a life of laziness, with no direction for the future, his father intervened. The captain persuaded a friend to send John to work in Jamaica and to arrange for his future provision.
It was a strong employment opportunity that would look good on Newton’s CV, but it would take John overseas for four years. John agreed to take the position.
On the way to the ship, however, John decided to pay a brief visit to his distant relatives in Kent, in whose house his mother had died. After his father’s remarriage, the families had drawn apart, but his father agreed to the visit, as their home was only a half-mile or so off the highway.
As John nervously approached the home, he was surprised by the visit in every way. First, the Catletts recognised him right away and welcomed him with open arms. The second surprise involved one of the Catletts’ two daughters.
The older daughter, Mary (or Polly, as she was called), was 14 years old. Newton learned later that their mothers had often spoken of young John and baby Polly as potential marriage partners. Newton fell wildly in love with Polly almost instantly.
In a book written nearly 300 years after the fact, it could be tempting to overdramatise what was going on in Newton’s heart. Such dramatics are hardly necessary, however, as Newton himself recorded that his love for Polly was stronger than what you read in romance novels!
He had lost his religion and his morality, but over the next seven years he would never lose his affection for the young Catlett girl. Even throughout his later life he worried that his love for Polly bordered on idolatry!
Because of her age and Newton’s circumstances, however, he could not let anyone know of the new fire in his heart, not even Polly. But all of his life was now seen through the prism of his affections, including the thought of spending four years on the other side of the world in Jamaica.
He wilfully extended his three-day visit to three weeks! When he was sure the ship had sailed, he returned home to face the fury of his father.
Captain Newton’s anger subsided sooner than expected, though, and young John was able to join the crew of a ship for a voyage to Venice. As the boat rose and sank on the sea, so also did Newton’s self-made morality.
With his ship docked in the port of Venice, John experienced a remarkable dream. At the time, the dream was disturbing, but later it had special significance to him.
In this dream, his night-watch was interrupted by a man who appeared on the ship’s deck. The stranger offered Newton a ring to protect carefully. With this ring, the man said, he would have happiness and blessing. He went on to say that if it was lost, however, Newton would experience trouble and misery.
A second man followed, only to argue about the benefits of the ring. He soon shamed Newton for believing that such a gift could be so important. The man coaxed Newton into flinging the ring into the harbour where the ship was anchored.
No sooner had the ring been submerged in the sea, than the mountains surrounding Venice exploded into flame. As he watched the fire move through the mountains into the city, closing in on the ship, Newton’s hope for the blessings of the ring were consumed.
As his hope was being consumed, a third man appeared (or possibly the first man reappeared). He dived into the water and recovered the ring. The Italian fires suddenly ceased.
As Newton dared to anticipate the ring being replaced, the man surprised him. He said that he would keep it for Newton, and at the time when Newton needed it, he himself would produce it for him.
Certainly, God can do whatever he will. The Bible records many dreams that God has given to people. There are also many stories of dreams, ancient and modern, in the history of the church that appear to have been divinely inspired. Still, dreamers cannot be sure of the meaning of any dream apart from the Bible.
The Bible does not instruct Christians to seek dreams or tell them how to interpret them. That said, as John Newton reflected upon this particular dream, he saw a picture of salvation. The blessings of the ring are like God’s blessings to an unworthy sinner, the ultimate blessing being the gift of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Not only are rebellious creatures unworthy to receive such a gift, they cannot be trusted to maintain it either. Left to ourselves, the best person would selfishly squander and throw away all of God’s blessings.
The Italian fires of the dream would be engulfed by the fires of judgement they represent. The Lord Jesus, represented by the first man, not only gives us his righteousness, but he also keeps it for us in heaven. When it comes to the gift of salvation, God truly does it all.
Newton’s dream outside the famous city of canals seems like a glimpse of what God would do in the still-stubborn heart of this sailor. Although his dream affected him terribly, like all of his other strong impressions and even the near-death experiences during his early years, the effects were but temporary.
This extract is taken with permission from the author’s Bitesize Biography on John Newton (EP Books, 128 pages, £6.99; ISBN: 978-0-85234-908-3)