John Newton and us
John Newton, who died 200 years ago in December 1807, is best known for his part in the abolition of the slave trade and for his pastoral labours, letters and hymns (see ET June 2007, p.37). In this article we highlight some lesser-known aspects of his life and ministry – which nevertheless speak to us today.
Newton’s conscience was awakened during a severe storm on board the Greyhound in March 1748. He started to read the New Testament and pray – the latter being a key sign of conversion (as with both Manasseh and Saul of Tarsus).
Newton’s conversion encourages us to keep praying for even cynical unbelievers – and to pray that on occasions there may be dramatic conversions of a kind that exalts and proclaims the sovereign grace of God.
His conversion encourages every parent and grandparent to keep praying for their children and grandchildren. Newton clearly remembered his mother – surely an eighteenth-century Hannah – praying with tears over his infant head.
It was not until 1754 that Newton met a committed well-taught Christian captain, Alexander Clunie, who discipled him. Newton said, ‘I began to understand the security of the covenant of grace’.1
The need for 21st century Clunies to be active for Christ in every walk of life is undiminished. What would have happened to Newton if Clunie had been told by his Independent congregation in Stepney that the navy was no place for a spiritual man?
Finding Clunie in the right place at the right time may have been one factor that, years later, led Newton to encourage the newly converted Wilberforce to continue his political career.
Newton’s Calvinism was a pastoral Calvinism (as in John Flavel’s ministry) and an evangelistic Calvinism (as winsomely and powerfully evidenced in George Whitefield’s). In the eighteenth-century sense of the word, it was ‘experimental’ Calvinism.
He sought to recognise the goodness and grace of God wherever he found it: ‘Though a man does not accord with my views of election, yet if he gives me good evidence that he is effectually called of God, he is my brother; though he seems afraid of the doctrine of final perseverance; yet, if grace enables him to persevere, he is my brother still. If he loves Jesus, I will love him, whatever hard name he may be called by, and whatever incidental mistakes I may think he holds. His differing from me will not always prove him to be wrong, except I am infallible myself’. 2
In content, style and spirit here is theology for today. Our evangelical colleges need men who will teach it, live it and show how to apply it wisely and pastorally.
Newton’s call to the ministry
Newton took his call to the ministry with great seriousness. Between 23 June and 4 August 1758 (his 33rd birthday) he wrote down his Miscellaneous thoughts and enquiries on an important subject. 3
He reflected on ‘the necessity of divine assistance … to enable a person to preach the gospel with purity, free from essential errors, propriety according to the state and circumstances of the audience, and with power so as to be able to enforce his message and to give evidence that it is indeed the Word of God’.4
For Newton, ‘the three great branches of divine truth’ were: (1) the doctrine of Jesus Christ crucified; (2) the great doctrine of love – ‘which is the life and soul of the gospel, and which seems too much to be left unnoticed amidst the general strife there is for and against other doctrines; and (3) the doctrine, or rather, the practice of gospel holiness’.5
Miscellaneous thoughts, a booklet of thirty-two pages, is a largely unknown gem which could fire the hearts of any moving towards ordination today.
Newton’s preaching and praying
These are two sides of the one coin. People flocked to hear Newton when he settled in Olney and later at St Mary Woolnoth. Yet we cannot number him among the really great preachers for he offered neither unique insight into the Word nor outstanding delivery. What, then, were his strengths?
Newton sought always to expound and apply the Scriptures as the Word of God and to glorify Christ – ‘Effect, I believe has been produced in my preaching by a solemn determination to bring forth Jesus Christ as the great subject in all my discourses’.6 He sought ‘to break a hard heart and to heal a broken heart’.7
Read Newton’s preaching for yourself – for example, the fifty sermons based on the texts used in Handel’s Messiah8 or, very accessibly, in 365 Days with John Newton.9 You will not be disappointed and may well find yourself praying for preachers today with the qualities that marked his ministry – experience of life, knowledge and application of the Word, and above all Christ-centredness.
Josiah Bull asks, ‘What … was the great secret of Mr Newton’s power and steadfastness?’ He answers, ‘Unquestionably it was his spirit of prayer. From the commencement of his religious history we find him cultivating this holy habit’.10
It is no surprise that this priority was reflected in church life. The priority of the Word and prayer must be kept central by every minister, every believer and every church in every century.
Leadership in the church of God is made in heaven and sadly not always reflected in ecclesiastical arrangements on earth. Newton spent his entire ministry as curate of one parish and then rector of another, but he was undoubtedly the most significant leader amongst Anglican Evangelicals and beyond in the late eighteenth century.
It was not his dramatic early years that made Newton a recognised leader, but the man God in his grace made of him. Despite only two years’ formal education, Newton comes across as someone with a sharp if not always original mind. He was seen as a man with clear biblical and theological convictions but one who held his views eirenically, reaching out to all who shared his gospel priorities.
His godly influence was forwarded in London through the Eclectic Society – founded in 1783 ‘for discussion of religious truths and mutual improvement’. From the outset this included ‘clergy from the established church, dissenting ministers and laymen’.11 Newton’s ongoing influence is seen in John Stott’s revival of the Eclectics in the early years of his own ministry.12
Newton’s influence on the next generation of Evangelicals was considerable (on Charles Simeon for example) and on pioneer missionaries such as William Carey and Henry Martyn.
Evangelical historians agree on Newton’s significance. For example, Skevington Wood writes: ‘For 28 years Newton delivered the evangelical message from this strategic pulpit (St Mary Woolnoth) and did perhaps more than any other to commend the cause’.13 Kenneth Hylson-Smith reflects: ‘John Newton was not only one of the most remarkable evangelical leaders but arguably one of the most remarkable men in the whole history of the Church of England’.14
Josiah Bull said, ‘It was his goodness rather than his greatness that rendered him so especially attractive – the abundance of the grace of God that was in him … Some men excel in one virtue more than another but Mr Newton’s character was beautiful in its entireness’.15
Hagiography is never justified and disputes over words are inappropriate, but the grace that saved Newton and wrought goodness in his character surely also made him great – great in ministry and leadership in his own generation and great in example and inspiration for the centuries to come.
1. Authentic Narrative, in The Life and Spirituality of John Newton, Bruce Hindmarsh, Regent College Publishing, 1998, p.88.
2. Newton’s Works, Vol. 6, 1820, reprinted Banner of Truth, 1985, p.199.
3. Printed for the John Newton Project from the ms. in Lambeth Palace Library by M. Rouse, 2001.
4. Ibid. p.12.
5. Ibid. p.29.
6. John H. Pratt, The Thought of the Evangelical Leaders, 1856, reprinted Banner of Truth, 1978, p.20.
7. Amazing Grace, John Newton’s story, Pollock, Hodder, 1981, p.155.
8. Works, Vol. 4.
9. 365 days with Newton, ed. Marylynn Rouse, Day One, 2006. Extracts from the notebooks are very helpfully combined with Newton’s hymns and extracts from his letters.
10. But now I see, Josiah Bull, 1868, reprinted Banner of Truth, 1998, p.368.
11. Cecil, ed. Rouse, p.200; and see Pratt.
12. Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: The making of a leader, IVP, 1999, pp. 305-308.
13. The indistinguishable blaze, A. Skevington Wood, Paternoster, 1960, p.208.
14. Evangelicals in the Church of England 1734-1994, Kenneth Hylson-Smith, T&T Clark, 1989, p.37.
15. Bull, p.363.
Extracted by permission from 1807-2007: John Newton and the twenty-first century, © Anthony Peter Baker 2007, ISBN 978-0-946307-69-2, published by the Latimer Trust PO Box 26685, London N14 4XQ.
www.latimertrust.org. Tony Baker is a trustee of The John Newton Project http://www.johnnewton.org/.