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John Newton, 1725-1807

by Duncan Campbell

John NewtonHis epitaph, written by himself, contains these lines:—

John Newton, Clerk, 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.

His career, therefore, resembles that of Augustine in illustrating "grace abounding to the chief of sinners." Two good women helped him: his mother by her teaching and prayers, though she died when he was only seven, and Mary Catlett, who became his wife. At eleven years of age his father took him to sea, where he served both in the Merchant and Royal Navy. From the latter he deserted. When caught, he was flogged and degraded from the rank of midshipman to that of a common sailor. But even when serving before the mast he read his Horace, and in a slave plantation on the Gold Coast studied his Euclid, drawing diagrams on the sand.

Nor was he wholly indifferent to religion. He tells us himself that he "took up and laid aside a religious procession three or four times before he was sixteen." But the reading of Shaftesbury's Characteristics and the influence of a companion made an utter sceptic of him, till the study of Thomas à Kempis' Imitation, enforced by a terrible experience at sea, when death stared him in the face, brought him back to the faith which he kept thenceforth, "not disobedient to the heavenly vision."

After his conversion he engaged for a time in the slave trade, apparently without any feeling of its incongruity, public opinion having not yet been educated to a sense of the iniquity of the trade. Strange to say, the chief instrument in that education—William Wilberforce—owed his religions impressions to Newton.

After six years as a slaver lie found work on shore, came under the influence of Wesley and Whitfield, and had his thoughts turned to the ministry. The Archbishop of York looked askance at a candidate for Holy Orders with such a record behind him, but in the end he was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln as curate of Olney, Bucks.

Here he laboured for eighteen years with untiring zeal. The famous Olney hymns, from his own and Cowper's pens, were written in great part for prayer meetings held in the "Great House," lent for the purpose by the Earl of Dartmouth.

The last years of his life were spent as Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, where he was buried. [Note: The remains of John Newton and his wife were removed from the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth, and reinterred at Olney on 25th January 1893. Reinterment was rendered necessary by excavations for an underground railway.]

His genius and his devotion, together with his strange life history, made him a distinct power in the evangelical revival of the period, and he was greatly renowned as a Protestant director of consciences. Besides Wilberforce, Thomas Scott, the commentator, was his son in the faith, and Hannah More his friend. But the most romantic of his friendships was that with Cowper, to whom for many years he was as a Jonathan "strengthening his hand in God," though perhaps it had been better for the tender, sensitive poet had his friend's theology been sunnier, with more of the divine Father in it and less of the Judge. Newton's hymns reveal a life not only earnest but terribly anxious. Few of them are frankly joyous. His muse is almost always under a shadow, as if he could never get quite away from memories of strife and fear of failure—witness such hymns as these—Though troubles assail; Why should I fear the darkest hour; Quiet, Lord, my froward heart; While with ceaseless course the sun. The most beautiful of them all, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, though glowing with love has a sad note in it.

From Hymns and Hymn Makers by Duncan Campbell. London: A. & C. Black, 1898.


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