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John Newton & Newton House, Oxford

June 2021 | by Michael Haykin

John_Newton_SOURCE_Adam Jones / Flickr
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John Newton: a life to emulate

In many respects, John Newton (1725–1807) was a quintessential 18th-century evangelical. The Anglican pastor-theologian was committed to a moderate Calvinism, Christocentric piety, conversionist preaching, and a generous catholicity, all of which were typical of the evangelical movement in the latter half of the 18th century, a movement that helped to refashion the manners and mores of Georgian England.

When some of the heirs of that refashioning, Victorian and Edwardian evangelicals, celebrated Newton’s life at the centenary of his death in 1907, they did so with a consciousness of their deep debt to the grace of God at work in Newton. ‘Of all the Fathers of Evangelical Churchmanship,’ Eugene Stock of the Church Missionary Society noted at the time, Newton’s ‘story is the most remarkable; and it ought to be remembered with thankfulness to the omnipotent grace of God, which could transform such a man, given over as he was to wickedness, into a saint.’

Among those who were asked to speak in 1907 at the various Newton celebrations held throughout England was Thomas Wright (1859–1936), regarded as an expert by his Christian contemporaries on all things relating to Newton and his close friend William Cowper (1731–1800), the renowned poet and hymnwriter.

On the afternoon of the Lord’s Day, 22 December 1907, for instance, Wright gave a talk at St Mary Woolnoth, London, where Newton had pastored for the last 27 years of his life. As he drew his lecture to a close, he observed that there were three of Newton’s works that were ‘imperishable’ classics: his letters to his wife, Newton’s own story of his conversion, and the Olney Hymns (1779).

The first of these classics had been written by Newton to his wife Mary Catlett (1729–1790), whom Newton called Polly, and was published after her death from cancer. Wright could well have widened the classic letters to include the 500 or so letters of spiritual advice that appeared in Newton’s lifetime, which confirmed his great gift as a spiritual mentor.

Other letters that have appeared in more recent days have only served to deepen the conviction that, as G. R. Balleine once put it, Newton was ‘the great spiritual director of souls through the post’ in this remarkable era of revival and mission.

Newton House: raison d’être and personnel

Newton House, the theological research centre of Union School of Theology, which is based in South Wales and Oxford, seeks to follow in Newton’s footsteps and to be a means of mentoring Christian scholars, helping them to undergird their scholarship with a biblical spirituality and encouraging them to devote themselves to the church, to the task of discipleship, and to the pursuit of a Christ-centered, catholic spirit.

Letters of John Newton
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The theological focus of Newton House is on systematic & historical theology and church history, complementing the long-established work of Tyndale House, Cambridge. I will serve as director, and the head of operations is Rob Trenckmann, who is finishing his PhD at Union School of Theology and was Country Lead for Josiah Venture in Hungary for nine years.

Also vital to the work of Newton House are the senior fellows – Dr Andrew Atherstone, Professor Gerald Bray, Professor Brad Green, Professor Robert Letham, Professor Michael Reeves, Dr Philip G. Ryken, Professor Corneliu Simuț, and Professor Kevin Vanhoozer.

Newton House: vehicles of mission & ministry

Newton House will fulfill its ministry through a variety of means, including an annual conference in Oxford and an annual research conference for Union School of Theology PhD students. Newton Journal, a semi-annual print and online journal, will publish the proceedings of the main conference.

Newton House will also produce occasional publications, small monographs on systematic theology and church history for the wider church – the first one, scheduled for release this autumn, will be on friendship. There will also be regular gatherings (and webinars) in which the staff and the fellows can mentor younger theologians.

All in all, Newton House will seek to demonstrate that theology and church history can and must be studied for the good of the church and the glory of God.

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