Review of John Newton by John Crotts
Newton wrote the epitaph that appears on his grave,
Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa was
By the rich Mercy of our Lord and Saviour
Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned
and appointed to preach the faith
He had long laboured to destroy.”
This book is part of the Bitesize Biographies series. There are 7 short chapters and only about 140 pages altogether. In spite of its brevity, there is a powerful story packed into these pages.
As a former teacher in a Christian academy, a children’s church worker and a homeschool parent/teacher, the life of John Newton has always been one of my favorite stories for making a strong positive impression on its readers. Because of his dramatic conversion experience, it’s an attention grabbing tale for storytellers; for older young people and adults, a compelling story that points us to the grace of God in an emphatic manner. Books written for children tend to emphasize the manner in which God attempted to get John Newton’s attention from his days of rebellion raising havoc on ships, being enslaved in Africa, his rescue and later captaincy of his own ship.
This book moves through those early events briefly in the first few chapters, and then concentrates primarily on Newton’s spiritual development, growth and personal ministry from the point when he finally acknowledged that God loved him. His early days as a follower of Christ flickered and sputtered like a candle blown in the wind, almost going out, but eventually reviving to burn brightly. Ship voyages in his day often took 18 months to two years and sometimes even five years, so that he didn’t get to fellowship with other Christians in those early days. But he did read the Bible and some great Christian books so that he did mature modestly until he was able to get home. During the months on a voyage, he honed his writing skills by writing volumes of letters to Polly. When he had a large enough stack, he posted them and she would get them all at one time. She would write to him in the same manner, and he would receive them eagerly. They were life’s breath to him.
On his third and final voyage as captain, after he had married Polly, he made acquaintance with a mature Christian and fellow ship’s captain, Alexander Clunie. They became close friends and spent a month waiting for ship repairs fellowshiping together. This friendship helped Newton to mature in his understanding of the Bible, clear up many misconceptions and doubts about his salvation, and paved the way for many wonderful friendships with other men of God. One of Clunie’s friends introduced him to George Whitefield, a famous evangelist of the day, just a few years after the Great Awakening. John Newton enjoyed listening to Whitefield preach so much that he extended his stay in the area, even time away from his beloved wife Polly, to hear more.
This was a time when the Church of England was the established church. There were groups of people working from the inside, such as John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, to call people to repentance and renew or place their faith in Jesus Christ. There were also reformers from without the church, often called Dissenters. Among these two groups, Newton made many friends and acquaintances. If a person loved the Lord and preached the gospel, he wanted that person as a friend. William Grimshaw of Haworth encouraged Newton to pursue the ministry. Henry Venn Huddersfield was a godly mentor; his fervor for preaching the gospel, sometimes thirty times a week, became a model for Newton. He became friends with the Baptist John Fawcett, an independent James Scott, the Presbyterian John Edwards, and Moravian Benjamin Ingham. He felt God guiding him to preach about the Grace God extended to him while he was still a wretched sinner, but didn’t know if he should work within the church, or among the Dissenters. Eventually he chose to pastor in the established church out of deference to Polly’s family, who were staunch supporters of the church.
Because John Newton was for the most part self-taught, and the Anglican church desired educated ministers, the best he could hope for was a position of curate, similar to being an assistant pastor. But he needed someone to ordain him. It took years before someone was willing to do so. During his wait, he would write letters detailing his conversion story to friends. One friend encouraged Newton to turn these letters into a book for publication. As a result his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative, was published and eventually read by many, including the Earl of Dartmouth. He had offered a curacy of a small parish in Olney to a friend of Newton’s, who in turn recommended Newton. Lord Dartmouth, an evangelical himself, saw to it that Newton was ordained.
Newton served in Olney for the next sixteen years. He loved the ministry, and people loved to hear him preach with such warmth and caring. He started children’s ministries, and often cooperated with other churches when special meetings were held for the purpose of evangelization. Some of the meetings were even held in Newton’s and William Cowper’s homes. He knew the men who formed a society that eventually sent out William Carey as missionary to India.
Newton met William Cowper a few years into his ministry when William left a hectic London to live in the relative peace of the countryside. The two became fast friends. Cowper was skilled in poetry and lyrics, while Newton was both musically talented and able to write lyrics. They collaborated together to write many hymns, a new form of music at the time, for the people in Newton’s parish. People in the area were often employed as lace makers. As they performed their repetitive tasks, they would sing little ditties to themselves that helped keep the patterns consistent and to pass the time. Cowper wanted to create a set of new songs for them to sing, based on the Gospel. The hymn form was especially appropriate for this task, so the two created over 348 hymns with 67 coming from Cowper’s pen. It was published in 1779 as Olney’s Hymns and became a great help to many churches over time. The book sold nearly half a million copies over the next few decades. Among the songs in this book are “Amazing Grace,” “There is a Fountain,” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.”
My favorite incidence in the book tells of Newton’s relationship with a fellow curate, but an unbeliever, Thomas Scott. He believed in rationalism rather than the Bible. Scott realized what a poor minister he really was when he learned that Newton was visiting his own sick and dying parishioners. Once when he visited Newton’s church to hear him preach, he did not understand him at all. So he used his wry wit to poke fun and mock Newton’s sermon. They maintained a correspondence, and Newton sent Scott one of his books, but everything Newton said seemed like foolishness to Scott. Eventually the Holy Spirit convicted Scott when he realized that gospel men like Newton spoke out of their spiritual experiences while he had no spiritual experience at all. Scott turned his heart over to Jesus.
The Newtons moved to London and continued the work of hospitality, Bible teaching, mentorship, and sponsorship as they had done in Olney. In their home were always some guests with either short or extended stays. John Newton saw the importance of creating friendships with all types of Christian leaders whether they were inside the Anglican church or outside it. They formed a network of gospel preaching men, sponsoring many projects that made London a better place to live. One project they established was a journal called the Christian Observer. Training opportunities for those outside the church among the Dissenters was very limited. In this network, John Newton served as advisor, helping to create a curriculum of Biblical training for young people with potential to be leaders in their churches, communities and missions. This academy served many for decades to come.
One of the young men Newton mentored was William Wilberforce. After his father’s death, his mother sent him to live with his aunt Hannah, an evangelical friend of the Newtons’ in both Olney and London. Young William looked up to Newton as a father figure, and Newton mentored him and prayed for his salvation. After years of correspondence and mentoring, William became a Member of Parliament. Eventually he opened his heart to Jesus and became a believer. Their father-son relationship continued to grow and Newton encouraged Willberforce to serve the Lord in his political life. Together, Newton and Wilberforce eventually turned the tide of opinion of all England against the practice of slavery by revealing the horrors of the conditions where the African people became slaves and were delivered to plantations to labor in.
John Newton’s life can be summed up in the book title by Jonathan Aitken, “From disgrace to Amazing Grace.” Before his mother died when he was eight, she prayed that her son
would serve God by going into the ministry. It took quite a few years, but God answered her prayers. Even when young John didn’t realize it, God showed amazing grace to him repeated until he got John’s full and undivided attention. John was so amazed by this grace that his penned words to the title of the song Amazing Grace lives long after the end of Newton’s mortal life.
A complimentary review copy was provided to me by Cross Focused Reviews (A Service of Cross Focused Media, LLC) and EP Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
- Hymn Stories: God Moves in a Mysterious Way (challies.com)
- Walking with God by William Cowper (sacollinsvogan.wordpress.com)
- From Sin to Grace, the Story of John Newton (hankeringforhistory.com)
- Redemption of a Ruined Life (quadzero.wordpress.com)
- His Was a Life of Discouragement and Yet – (simplemeditations.wordpress.com)
- John Newton (hischapel.net)