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John Newton's Text

by F. W. Boreham

Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee... Deuteronomy 15:15

I

John NewtonJohn Newton was plagued with a terribly treacherous memory. In his youth it had betrayed and nearly ruined him; how could he ever trust it again? 'You must know,' said Greatheart to Christiana's boys, 'you must know that Forgetful Green is the most dangerous place in all these parts.' John Newton understood, better than any man who ever lived, exactly what Greatheart meant. Poor John Newton nearly lost his soul on Forgetful Green. His autobiography is filled with the sad, sad story of his forgettings. 'I forgot,' he says again and again and again, 'I forgot...! I soon forgot...! This, too, I totally forgot!' The words occur repeatedly. And so it came to pass that when, after many wild and dissolute years, he left the sea and entered the Christian ministry, he printed a certain text in bold letters, and fastened it right across the wall over his study mantelpiece:

THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT THOU WAST A BONDMAN IN THE LAND OF EGYPT, AND THE LORD THY GOD REDEEMED THEE.

A photograph of that mantelpiece lies before me as I write. There, clearly enough, hangs John Newton's text! In sight of it he prepared every sermon. In this respect John Newton resembled Thomas Goodwin. 'When,' says that sturdy Puritan, in a letter to his son, 'when I was threatening to become cold in my ministry, and when I felt Sabbath morning coming and my heart not filled with amazement at the grace of God, or when I was making ready to dispense the Lord's Supper, do you know what I used to do? I used to take a turn up and down among the sins of my past life, and I always came down again with a broken and contrite heart, ready to preach, as it was preached in the beginning, the forgiveness of sins.' 'I do not think,' he says again, 'I ever went up the pulpit stair that I did not stop for a moment at the foot of it and take a turn up and down among the sins of my past years. I do not think that I ever planned a sermon that I did not take a turn round my study-table and look back at the sins of my youth and of all my life down to the present; and many a Sabbath morning, when my soul had been cold and dry for the lack of prayer during the week, a turn up and down in my past life before I went into the pulpit always broke my hard heart and made me close with the gospel for my own soul before I began to preach.' Like this great predecessor of his, Newton felt that, in his pulpit preparation, he must keep his black, black past ever vividly before his eyes.

   'I forgot...! I soon forgot...! This, too,
I totally forgot!"
  'Thou shalt remember, remember, remember!'
  'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman
in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God
redeemed thee!'

II

'A bondman!'
'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman!'

The words were literally true! For some time Newton was a slavetrader; but, worse still, for some time he was a slave! Newton's conversion deserves to be treasured among the priceless archives of the Christian church because of the amazing transformation it effected. It seems incredible that an Englishman could fall as low as he did. As Professor Goldwin Smith says, he was a brand plucked from the very heart of the burning! Losing his mother—the one clear guiding-star of his early life—when he was seven, he went to sea when he was eleven. 'I went to Africa,' he tells us, 'that I might be free to sin to my heart's content.' During the next few years his soul was seared by the most revolting and barbarous of all human experiences. He endured the extreme barbarities of a life before the mast; he fell into the pitiless clutches of the pressgang; as a deserter from the navy he was flogged until the blood streamed down his back; and he became involved in the unspeakable atrocities of the African slave trade. And then, going from bad to worse, he actually became a slave himself! The slave of a slave! He was sold to a negress who, glorying in her power over him, made him depend for his food on the crusts that she tossed under her table! He could sound no lower depth of abject degradation. In the after-years, he could never recall this phase of his experience without a shudder. As he says in the epitaph that he composed for himself, he was 'the slave of slaves.'

'A bondman!'
'A slave of slaves! A bondman of bondsmen!'
'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman!'

How could he ever forget?

III

How, I say, could he ever forget? And yet he had forgotten other things scarcely less notable.

As a boy, he was thrown from a horse and nearly killed. Looking death in the face in this abrupt and untimely way, a deep impression was made. 'But,' he says, 'I soon forgot!'

Some years later, he made an appointment with some companions to visit a man-of-war. They were to meet at the waterside at a certain time and row out to the battleship. But the unexpected happened. Newton was detained; his companions left without him; the boat was upset and they were drowned. 'I went to the funeral,' Newton says, 'and was exceedingly affected. But this also I soon forgot!'

Then came a remarkable dream. Really he was lying in his hammock in the forecastle of a ship homeward bound from Italy. But, in his fancy, he was back at Venice. It was midnight; the ship, he thought, was riding at anchor; and it was his watch on deck. As, beneath a clear Italian sky, he paced to and fro across the silent vessel, a stranger suddenly approached him. This mysterious visitant gave him a beautiful ring. 'As long as you keep it,' he said, 'you will be happy and successful; but, if you lose it, you will know nothing but trouble and misery.' The stranger vanished. Shortly after, a second stranger appeared on deck. The newcomer pointed to the ring. 'Throw it away!' he cried, 'throw it away!' Newton was horrified at the proposal; but he listened to the arguments of the stranger and at length consented. Going to the side of the ship, he flung the ring into the sea. Instantly the land seemed ablaze with a range of volcanoes in fierce eruption, and he understood that all those terrible flames had been lit for his destruction. The second stranger vanished; and, shortly after, the first returned. Newton fell at his feet and confessed everything. The stranger entered the water and regained the ring. 'Give it me!' Newton cried, in passionate entreaty, 'give it me!' 'No,' replied the stranger, 'you have shown that you are unable to keep it! I will preserve it for you, and, whenever you need it, will produce it on your behalf.' 'This dream,' says Newton, 'made a very great impression; but the impression soon wore off, and, in a little time, I totally forgot it!'

'I forgot!'
'This, too, I soon forgot!'
'In a little time, I totally forgot it!'

So treacherous a thing was Newton's memory!

Is it any wonder that he suspected it, distrusted it, feared it? Is it any wonder that, right across his study wall, he wrote that text?

'Thou shalt remember!'
'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman!'
'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman,
and that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!'

IV

'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman!'
'Thou shalt remember that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!'

But how? Was the work of grace in John Newton's soul a sudden or a gradual one? It is difficult to say. It is always difficult to say. The birth of the body is a very sudden and yet a very gradual affair: so also is the birth of the soul. To say that John Newton was suddenly converted would be to ignore those gentle and gracious influences by which two good women—his mother and his sweetheart—led him steadily heavenwards. 'I was born,' Newton himself tells us, 'in a home of godliness, and dedicated to God in my infancy. I was my mother's only child, and almost her whole employment was the care of my education.' Every day of her life she prayed with him as well as for him, and every day she sought to store his mind with those majestic and gracious words that, once memorised, can never be altogether shaken from the mind. It was the grief of her deathbed that she was leaving her boy, a little fellow of seven, at the mercy of a rough world; but she had sown the seed faithfully, and she hoped for a golden harvest.

Some years later, John Newton fell in love with Mary Catlett. She was only thirteen—the age of Shakespeare's Juliet. But his passion was no passing fancy. 'His affection for her,' says Professor Goldwin Smith, 'was as constant as it was romantic; his father frowned on the engagement, and he became estranged from home; but through all his wanderings and sufferings he never ceased to think of her; and after seven years she became his wife.' The Bishop of Durham, in a centennial sermon, declares that Newton's pure and passionate devotion to this simple and sensible young girl was 'the one merciful anchor that saved him from final self-abandonment.' Say that Newton's conversion was sudden, therefore, and you do a grave injustice to the memory of two women whose fragrant influence should never be forgotten.

And yet it was sudden; so sudden that Newton could tell the exact date and name the exact place! It took place on the tenth of March, 1748, on board a ship that was threatening to founder in the grip of a storm. 'That tenth of March,' says Newton, 'is a day much to be remembered by me; and I have never suffered it to pass unnoticed since the year, 1748. For on that day—March 10, 1748—the Lord came from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.' The storm was terrific: when the ship went plunging down into the trough of the seas few on board expected her to come up again. The hold was rapidly filling with water. As Newton hurried to his place at the pumps he said to the captain, 'If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us!' His own words startled him.

'Mercy!' he said to himself, in astonishment, 'mercy! mercy! What mercy can there be for me? This was the first desire I had breathed for mercy for many years! About six in the evening the hold was free from water, and then came a gleam of hope. I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favour. I began to pray. I could not utter the prayer of faith. I could not draw near to a reconciled God and call Him Father. My prayer for mercy was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord Jesus does not disdain to hear.'

'In the gospel,' says Newton, in concluding the story of his conversion, 'in the gospel I saw at least a peradventure of hope; but on every other side I was surrounded with black, unfathomable despair.' On that 'peradventure of hope' Newton staked everything. On the tenth of March, 1748, he sought mercy—and found it! He was then twenty-three.

V

Years afterwards, when he entered the Christian ministry, John Newton began making history. He made it well. His hand is on the nation still. He changed the face of England. He began with the church. In his 'History of the Church of England,' Wakeman gives us a sordid and terrible picture of the church as Newton found it. The church was in the grip of the political bishop, the fox-hunting parson, and an utterly worldly and materialistic laity. Spiritual leadership was unknown. John Newton and a few kindred spirits, 'the first generation of the clergy called "evangelical,"' became—to use Sir James Stephen's famous phrase—'the second founders of the Church of England.' There is scarcely a land beneath the sun that has been unaffected by Newton's influence. As one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society, he laid his hand upon all our continents and islands. Through the personalities of his converts, too, he wielded a power that is impossible to compute. Take two, by way of illustration. Newton was the means of the conversion of Claudius Buchanan and Thomas Scott. In due time Buchanan carried the gospel to the East Indies, and wrote a book which led Adoniram Judson to undertake his historic mission to Burmah.

Scott became one of the most powerful writers of his time, and, indeed, of all time. Has not Cardinal Newman confessed that it was Scott's treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity that preserved his faith, in one of the crises of his soul, from total shipwreck? And what ought to be said of Newton's influence on men like Wilberforce and Cowper, Thornton and Venn? One of our greatest literary critics has affirmed that the friendship of Newton saved the intellect of Cowper. 'If, said Prebendary H. E. Fox, not long ago, 'if Cowper had never met Newton, the beautiful hymns in the Olney collection, and that noble poem, "The Task"—nearest to Milton in English verse—would never have been written.' Moreover, there are Newton's own hymns. Wherever, to this day, congregations join in singing 'How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,' or 'Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,' or 'One There is Above All Others,' or 'Amazing Grace, how Sweet the Sound,' there John Newton is still at his old task, still making history!

VI

And, all the time, the text hung over the fireplace:

"Thou shalt remember!'
'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman!'
'Thou shalt remember that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!'

From that time forth Newton's treacherous memory troubled him no more. He never again forgot. He never could. He said that when, from the hold of the sinking ship, he cried for mercy, it seemed to him that the Saviour looked into his very soul.

Sure, never till my latest breath,
  Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
  Though not a word He spoke.

'I forgot...! I soon forgot...! This, too, I totally forgot!'
'Thou shalt remember that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!'
'Never till my latest breath can I forget that look!'

The Rev. Richard Cecil, M.A., who afterwards became his biographer, noticing that Newton was beginning to show signs of age, urged him one day to stop preaching and take life easily. 'What!' he replied, `shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak at all?' He could not forget. And he was determined that nobody else should! In order that future generations might know that he was a bondman and had been redeemed, he wrote his own epitaph and expressly directed that this—this and no other—should be erected for him:

JOHN NEWTON,
Clerk,
Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A Servant of Slaves in Africa,
was
by the Mercy of our Lord and Saviour
Jesus Christ,
Preserved, Restored, Pardoned,
And Appointed to Preach the Faith he
had so long laboured to destroy.

No; that treacherous memory of his never betrayed him again! When he was an old, old man, very near the close of his pilgrimage, William Jay, of Bath, one day met him in the street. Newton complained that his powers were failing fast. 'My memory,' he said, 'is nearly gone; but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour!'

'Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!'—that was John Newton's text.

'My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour!'—that was John Newton's testimony...


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from A Bunch of Everlastings, or Texts That Made History... by F. W. Boreham. New York: Abingdon Press, ©1920.

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