1. Ken Connolly, “The Church In Transition”
John Newton’s father was the master of a ship in the Mediterranean trade and at sea when John was born in London. His mother was a frail, sweet-natured, God-fearing Dissenter who wished above all that her boy might become a minister. She died when he was only seven.
John joined his father at sea when he was only eleven. By then he had spent two years in a boarding school and had acquired a rudimentary knowledge of Latin. He served on his father’s vessel from 1737 until 1742. John was then transferred to serve as a midshipman on a “man-of-war,” named the Harwich. That situation brought him to a position independent of parental supervision Consequently, John Newton sank to the level of a common British “tar.”
Then he met and grew to love Miss Mary Catlett and was very anxious to see her. Once when the ship was anchored off Plymouth harbor, John attempted to escape. When he was caught, he was flogged before the entire crew within an inch of his life. Still that did not awaken the young man. Instead, due to the influence of a “free thinker,” John Newton completely renounced all hope of the Gospel.
Because he was a “bad apple,” the captain of the Harwich “exchanged” Newton to the Pegasus, and that introduced him to the slave trade. That small ship was bound for the west coast of Africa. Being a slaver further eroded Newton’s morals, and as is so common with that comportment, he brushed closely with death on several occasions.
As a veteran sailor of twelve years, in 1748 Newton was caught in a violent storm on the Atlantic. It was titanic. The angry ocean threatened to break his ship and bury another Jonah. Newton suddenly became terrified at death and began to experience a dreadful fear of God. Scriptures flashed into his mind which he had learned as a boy from his mother. On the tenth of March, 1748 Newton explains, “the Lord came down from on high and delivered me from the deep waters.” That experience did not end the storm outside, but it did bring a peace within. John Newton, the slave trader who was a slave to sin, found the Truth in Jesus Christ and the Truth set him free!
Because he had become a Christian, Mary Catlett felt free to accept Newton’s proposal of marriage. They were married in 1750. Newton’s father died the next year. The elder Newton had become the governor of York Fort, Hudson Bay. The son stayed five more years at sea after his marriage. In 1755 he retired from the sea and accepted the appointment of tide surveyor in Liverpool. Newton diligently studied both Greek and Hebrew, and in 1758 he applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The request was denied. The next seven years record frustrating efforts to obtain that ordination but they also were futile. When John Wesley asked Newton to become one of his itinerant preachers, he nearly yielded. In fact, Newton even briefly considered becoming a Dissenter. In 1764, however, he finally accomplished his goal and was ordained into the Church of England,
His first assignment was to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Olney. William Cowper settled in the parish three years later and a lasting friendship developed between them. It influenced both of their lives. Significant for us, Newton and Cowper produced and published “The Olney Hymns” in 1779.
John Newton moved to London that same year to become the Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth. He spent his last 28 years there, and his greatest accomplishment was to preach fire into the soul of the famous William Wilberforce, who was a member of his congregation. Wilberforce subsequently harassed Parliament to end the slave trade, and it happened, but after the death of both men.
Newton continued his ministry until the Lord took him home, even though he lost his sight in 1805 and was unable to read during his last two years.
He was surely the most qualified man on earth to compose those words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…”
2. F. W. Boreham, “A Bunch Of Everlastings”
John 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 a 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 bond-man in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!’
‘Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bond-man!’
The words were literally true! For some time Newton was a slave trader; 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 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 slave of slaves! A bondman of bondmen!’
‘Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bond-man!’
How could he ever forget? 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!’
‘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 bond-man’
‘Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bond- man, and that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!’
‘Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bond-man!’
‘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 memorized, 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.
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 un- known. 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 it 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 Burma. 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 Wilber- force 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!
And, all the time, the text hung over the fire-place:
‘Thou shalt remember!’
‘Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bond-man!’
‘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 Savior 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 bond- man 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.
‘I forgot…! I soon forgot…! This, too, I totally forgot!’
‘Thou shalt remember, remember, remember!’
Newton liked to think that the memory that had once so basely betrayed him—the memory that, in later years, he had so sternly and perfectly disciplined—would serve him still more delightfully in the life beyond. Cowper died a few years before his friend; and Newton liked to picture to himself their reunion in heaven. He wrote a poem in which he represented himself as grasping Cowper’s hand and rapturously addressing him:
Oh! let thy memory wake! I told thee so;
I told thee thus would end thy heaviest woe;
I told thee that thy God would bring thee here,
And God’s own hand would wipe away thy tear,
While I should claim a mansion by thy side;
I told thee so—for our Emmanuel died.
‘Oh! let thy memory wake!’
‘I forgot…! I soon forgot…! This, too, I totally forgot!’
‘Thou shalt remember that the Lord thy God redeemed thee!’
Newton felt certain that the joyous recollection of that infinite redemption would be the loftiest bliss of the life that is to be.
3. Carl Price, “A Year Of Hymn Stories”
When John Newton, an English preacher of the eighteenth century, in his old age could no longer read his texts, he was urged to give up preaching. “What !” said he, “shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?” And in these words he correctly characterized himself as he had been be fore conversion. Newton could never forget that the grace of God had rescued him from the depths of sin. His godly mother had taught him ihe Scriptures. But she died when he was only seven years old, and at the age of eleven he went to sea with his father. His life as a sailor was full of exciting adventures and full of wickedness. He became a sea captain and a slave-trader, and was enslaved himself for a time. For years the only good influence that he knew came through his love for his future wife, Mary Catlett.
One frightful night, when he was twenty-three years old, the waterlogged vessel he was steering was almost lost. Thus facing death all night long, he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ and turned away from his sins. Later he came under the influence of Whitefield and the Wesleys, entered the Christian ministry, and lived a life of wide usefulness, in the service of the Master. His influence lives to-day chiefly in the hymns that he wrote, many of them being first published with those of Cowper in the “Olney Hymns” and similar collections. His hymn, “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” which we sing to the Austrian national tune, is one of the finest hymns of praise in the English language.
4. Henry Burrage, “Baptist Hymn Writers And Their Hymns”
London was the birth-place of this eminent servant of God, “once an infidel and a servant of slaves in libertine, Africa,”; as he wrote of himself in his epitaph. He was an only child, and had the misfortune to lose his mother in his seventh year; by this similarity being prepared to sympathize with Cowper, the companion of his later years. Newton s mother was a pious dissenter, and trained her son carefully, having it in her heart that he would be one day engaged in the Christian ministry a work to which she had devoted him. Young Newton s father and step-mother did not carry on this good work, but he was “much left to himself, to mingle with idle and wicked boys, and soon learnt their ways.”
As a young man, Newton passed through various religious experiences, but at length became an infidel in his notions, and a profligate in his conduct. Having been accustomed to take voyages with his father, he at last devoted himself entirely to a seafaring life. Before he was of age, he deserted his ship, and was brought back to Plymouth as a felon, kept in irons, degraded from his office as midshipman, and publicly whipped. But sin and severe punishment only hardened him more and more. While on a voyage, he obtained leave to exchange into a vessel bound for the African coast. His purpose was to be free to sin. Having reached the coast of Africa, he left the ship and lived on the Island of Plantains, where he was treated with severity by his master, a slave-trader, and by his master s wife, and suffered great hardships and afflictions. There, too, he sinned with the freedom lie had purposed, and led others into sin; but, on writing to his father, arrangements were made for a vessel to call for him. In the beginning of the year 1748 the vessel, having received him on board, set out on a tedious homeward voyage. During this voyage he one day took up Stanhope’s “Thomas a Kempis,” and the thought struck him, “What if these things should be true?” That very night the vessel was almost wrecked in a terrible storm. On the following day, when exhausted with pumping, after resting a little, he steered the ship for some time. During those hours of solemn reflection, his whole former life passed in review before him, and especially his scoffing at Scripture, his vicious conduct, and the dangers he had been in. The ship outrode the storm, and the awakened sinner was saved to serve God in the world. On reaching Ireland, Newton heard from his father, who had gone to be Governor of York Fort, Hudson s Bay, but soon after received the painful news that his father had been drowned while bathing.
In his twenty-fifth year, Newton married Miss Catlett, whom he had loved from his boyhood with unfailing constancy, and whom he afterwards idolized. Up to the year 1754, we find him actively engaged in what he did not then regard as an unlawful occupation the slave trade. As a captain, he did what he could for the religious benefit of the sailors under him. At the end of 1754, when about to set out on a voyage, he was seized with an apoplectic fit. In consequence of this, he rested for a time, and then obtained the office of tide-surveyor, at Liverpool. This position he held for eight years. His Christian life now became purified and strengthened by his experience, and he owed much to the religious influence of a captain whom he met with on one of his voyages.
Anxious to turn to good account for others the remarkable religious change he had experienced, he began, in the year 1758, to attempt to preach. His first efforts were so little successful, that he confined himself to a meeting on Sundays with his friends in his own house. He had all through life given some attention to mental improvement. Even amidst his privations in Africa he studied Euclid, and mastered six hooks, and during his voyages he pursued the study of Latin, though at first he had not even a dictionary to assist him.
In the year 1761, and when in his thirty-ninth year, he entered upon a regular ministry. The Earl of Dartmouth presented him to the Vicarage of Olney. There he remained nearly sixteen years, faithfully serving in the Gospel, and at the same time daily consoling the suffering poet Cowper, and stimulating him to useful effort. Together they enjoyed the friendship of the eminent dissenting minister, the Rev. William Bull; together they dispensed the bounty of the benevolent John Thornton; and together they produced the “Olney Hymns.” These hymns were written for the use of Newton’s congregation, and contain those of Newton s and Cowper s which are so much in use in the Christian Church, and several of which are found in the “New Congregational Hymn Book.”
On leaving Olney, Newton became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, in London; there he became generally known, and his Christian usefulness was very great. His power was not merely in the pulpit, but in conversation and in his correspondence. Several of his works consist of letters: they are rich in Christian experience, and admirable for their clearness and simplicity. In this also Newton and Cowper were alike: both were eminent letter-writers.
5. Edwin Long, “Illustrated History of Hymns And Their Authors”
“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
“In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear.”
These two hymns of John Newton, issued in 1779, were photographs of his past experience. He was born in London on the 24th of July, 1725. His father had charge of a ship engaged in the Mediterranean trade.
When a young man he gave himself up to a sea-faring life, and, being impressed, was put on board the Harwick man-of-war, where he gave vent to all his corrupt passions, and yielded himself to the influence of the baldest infidelity. While the boat lay at Plymouth he deserted, was caught, brought back and kept in irons, then publicly stripped and whipped, after which he was degraded from the office of midshipman, and his companions forbidden to show him the least favor or even to speak to him. He was thus brought down to a level with the lowest and exposed to the insults of all.
During the following five years he got leave to be exchanged and entered a vessel bound for the African coast. Here he became the servant of a slave trader, who with his wife treated him with savage cruelty. For fifteen months he lived in the most abject bondage.
Writing to his father, arrangements were made for a vessel to call for him and to bring him home.
While on the voyage home he found on the boat a copy of Stanhope’s Thomas a Kempis, that he read to pass away the time. While perusing it, the thought flashed across his mind: ” What if these things should be true.”
The following night a fearful storm arose. A friend who took his place for a moment, was swept overboard.
For a time it seemed as if the boat would be shivered to atoms. During the calm that followed, a tempest of sin arose within his bosom. His crimes, infidel scoffings, and many narrow escapes from sudden death, passed before his mind in dark array.
Then says he: “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 was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear. I now began to think of the Jesus whom I had so often offended. I recollected the particulars of his life and death; a death for sins not his own, but for those, who, in their distress, should put their trust in him…In perusing the New Testament, I was—struck with several passages, particularly the prodigal—a case that had never been so nearly exemplified, as by myself—and then the goodness of the father in receiving, nay, in running to meet such a son, and this intended only to illustrate the Lord’s goodness to returning sinners this gained upon me.” Thus he became, as he says, “a new man.”
In after years he brought out his experience in verse, on this wise:—
“I hear the tempest’s awful sound,
I feel the vessel’s quick rebound;
And fear might now my bosom fill,
‘But Jesus tells me, ‘Peace! Be still!’
[Consider] A Mother’s Prayer And Her Son’s Hymn.
In this dread hour I cling to Thee,
My Saviour crucified for me.
If that I perish be Thy will,
‘In death, Lord, whisper, ‘Peace! Be still!’
Hark! He has listened while I prayed,
Slowly the tempests rage is stayed;
The yielding waves obey His will,
Jesus hath bid them, ‘Peace! Be still!’”
“Jesus, the Lord, will hear,
His chosen when they cry,
Yea, though awhile he may forbear,
He’ll help them from on high.”
The verse, taken from Newton’s oft-repeated hymn—“Jesus, who knows full well, The heart of every saint,” was illustrative of his own history. He was the child of many prayers. Says he “I can sometimes feel a pleasure in repeating the grateful acknowledgment of David, ‘O Lord, I am thy servant, the son of thy handmaid.’ The tender mercies of God toward me were manifest in the first moment of my life, I was dedicated to him in my infancy.”
When but four years old, his mother had already stored his memory with many valuable pieces, chapters and portions of Scripture, catechisms, hymns and poems. “My mother observed my early progress with peculiar pleasure, and intended from the first to bring me up with a view to the ministry.”
When seven years of age, he lost his devotedly pious mother. His father and step-mother left him to mingle with careless and profane children, and to become like them. His subsequent life of prodigality seemed to neutralize and contradict the virtue of a Christian mother’s prayers, yet nevertheless, the Lord does hear his—“chosen when they cry,” and, as we see in Newton’s case, though divine grace did—“awhile forbear, He’ll help them from above.”
Though this faithful mother was dead and in the grave, her prayers and influence followed him in all his wanderings, as he says: “though, in process of time, I sinned away all the advantages of these early impressions, yet they were for a great while a restraint upon me; they returned again, and it was very long before I could wholly shake them off; and when the Lord at length opened my eyes, I found a great benefit from the recollection of them. Further, my dear mother, besides the pains she took with me, often commended me with many prayers and tears to God. I have no doubt but I reap the fruits of these prayers to this hour.” How extensive and enduring the answer to those supplications of a mother’s heart. Her son became not only a minister eminent in usefulness, and a writer of hymns, whose influence reaches as far as the English language extends, but the means of the conversion of others who have carried the light of gospel truth among the millions enveloped in the darkness of heathenism.
Newton was the means of the conversion of Claudius Buchanan, who afterwards went as a missionary to the East Indies. There he wrote a book, “The Star in the East,” which was the first thing that attracted the attention of Adoniram Judson as a missionary to the East In- dies, where he afterwards poured a flood of light on Burmah and its surrounding millions.
Thomas Scott, the renowned commentator, was also among Newton’s trophies. In his autobiography, Scott honestly admits that he was unconverted when he received ordination, totally ignorant of the gospel and its saving power, till he was led to the truth by Mr. Newton.
Newton also, in connection with Doddridge, was instrumental in the spiritual change of Wilberforce, for whose conversion he is said to have prayed fourteen years. Wilberforce laid his princely fortune at the feet of Jesus, and also effected by his eloquence, after years of unceasing efforts, the abolition of the African Slave Trade. He also wrote the useful book entitled, “A Practical View of Christianity,” that has already passed through some fifty editions.
This book was the means of the conversion of Leigh Richmond, the author of the “Dairyman’s daughter,” whose eminently successful life and writings have resulted in the conversion of thousands.
Thus we see what a vast train of blessed results have followed the early training of John Newton, and how rich the eternal reward must be tc such a faithful mother.
6. Henry Burrage, “Baptist Hymn Writers And Their Hymns”
John Newton, who was born in London, July 24, 1725, and died there December 21, 1807, occupied an unique position among the founders of the Evangelical School, due as much to the romance of his young life and the sinking history of his conversion, as to his force of character. His mother, a pious Disenter, stored his childish mind with Scripture, but died when he was seven years old.
At the age of eleven, after two years’ schooling, during which he learned the rudiments of Latin, he went to sea with his father. His life at sea teems with wonderful escapes, vivid dreams, and sailor recklessness. He grew into an abandoned and godless sailor. The religious fits of his boyhood changed into settled infidelity, through the study of Shaftesbury and the instruction of one of his comrades.
Disappointing repeatedly the plans of his father, he was flogged as a deserter from the navy, and for fifteen months lived, half-starved and ill-treated, in abject degradation under a slave-dealer in Africa. The one restraining influence of his life was his faithful love for his future wife, Mary Catlett, formed when he was seventeen, and she only in her fourteenth year.
A chance reading of Thomas a Kempis sowed the seed of his conversion; which quickened under the awful contemplations of a night spent in steering a water-logged vessel in the face of apparent death (1748). He was then twenty-three. The six following years, during which he commanded a slave ship, matured his Christian belief. Nine years more, spent chiefly at Liverpool, in intercourse with Whitefield, Wesley, and Nonconformists, in the study of Hebrew and Greek, in exercises of devotion and occasional preaching among the Dissenters, elapsed before his ordination to the curacy of Olney, Bucks (1764).
The Olney period was the most fruitful of his life. His zeal in pastoral visiting, preaching and prayer-meetings was unwearied. He formed his lifelong friendship with Cowper, and became the spiritual father of Scott the commentator. At Olney his best works— Omicron’s/betters (1774); Olney Hymns (1779); Cardiphonia, written from Olney, though pub.1781—were composed. A rector of St.Mary Woolnoth, London, in the centre of the Evangelical movement (1780-1807) his zeal was as ardent as before. In 1805, when no longer able to read his text, his reply when pressed to discontinue preaching, was, “What, shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak!” The story of his sins and his conversion, published by himself, and the subject of lifelong allusion, was the base of his influence; but it would have been little but for the vigour of his mind (shown even in Africa by his reading Euclid drawing its figures on the sand), his warm heart, candour, tolerance, and piety. These qualities gained him the friendship of Hannah More, Cecil, Wilberforce, and others; and his renown as a guide in experimental religion made him the centre of a host of inquirers, with whom he maintained patient, loving, and generally judicious correspondence, of which a monument remains in the often beautiful letters of Cardiphonia.
As a hymn-writer, Montgomery says that he was distanced by Cowper. But Lord Selborne’s contrast of the “manliness” of Newton and the “tenderness” of Cowper is far juster. A comparison of the hymns of both in The Book of Praise will show no great inequality between them. Amid much that is bald, tame, and matter-of-fact, his rich acquaintance with Scripture, knowledge of the heart, directness and force, and a certain sailor imagination, tell strongly. The one splendid hymn of praise, “Glorious things of thee are spoken,”in the Olney collection, is his “One there is above all others” has a depth of realizing love, sustained excellence of expression, and ease of development. “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds” is in Scriptural richness superior, and in structure, cadence, and almost tenderness, equal to Cowper’s “Oh! for a closer walk with God.” The most characteristic hymns are those which depict in the language of intense humiliation his mourning for the abiding sins of his regenerate life, and the sense of the withdrawal of God’s face, coincident with the never-failing conviction of acceptance in The Beloved. The feeling may be seen in the speeches, writings, and diaries of his whole life.
7. John Gadsby, “Memoirs Of The Principal Hymns”
John Newton was born in London, July 24th, 1725. He was an only son. His mother, to whom he was particularly attached, herself taught him English, and that in such a way that, added to his own natural talents, by the time he was four years old, he could read any common book with propriety. She died before he was seven years of age, and he was then left to run wild, as is the case with too many children. His father married again the following year, and Newton was afterwards sent to a boarding-school in Essex. His father was then at sea, a commander in the Mediterranean trade.
When 11 years old, his father took him with him to sea. In 1742 he was placed, with very advantageous prospects, at Alicant, in Spain, but his unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint rendered that design abortive. He had very little concern about religion, but was often disturbed with convictions. “I was,” he says, “fond of reading from a child; among other books, Bonnet’s ‘Christian Oratory’ often came in my way; and though I understood but little of it, the course of life therein recommended appeared very desirable, and I was inclined to attempt it. I began to pray, to read the Scriptures, and keep a sort of diary. I was presently religious in my own eyes; but, alas! this seeming goodness had no solid foundation, but passed away like a morning-cloud or the early dew. I was soon weary, gradually gave it up, and became worse than before. Instead of prayer, I learned to curse and blaspheme, and was exceedingly wicked when from under my parent’s view. All this was before I was 12 years old. About that time I had a dangerous fall from a horse. I was thrown, I believe, within a few inches of a hedge-row newly cut down. I got no hurt; but could not avoid taking notice of a gracious Providence in my deliverance; for, had I fallen upon the stakes, I had inevitably been killed. My conscience suggested to me the dreadful consequences if, in such a state, I had been summoned to appear before God. I presently broke off from my profane practices, and appeared quite altered. But it was not long before I declined again. These struggles between sin and conscience were often repeated; but the consequence was, that every relapse sank me into still greater depths of wickedness. I was once roused by the loss of an intimate companion. We had agreed to go on board a man-of-war (I think it was on a Sunday); but I providentially came too late. The boat was overset, and my companion and several others were drowned. I was invited to the funeral of my playfellow, and was exceedingly affected to think that by a delay of a few minutes, which had much displeased and angered me, till I saw the event, my life had been preserved. However, this likewise was soon forgotten. At another time, the perusal of the ‘Family Instructor ‘ put me upon a partial and transient reformation. In brief, though I cannot distinctly relate particulars, I think I took lip and laid aside a religious profession three or four different times before I was 16 years of age; but all this while my heart was insincere. I often saw the necessity of religion as a means of escaping hell; but I loved sin, and was unwilling to forsake it. Instances of this, I can remember were frequent. In the midst of all my forms, I was so strangely blind and stupid that sometimes, when. I have been determined upon things which I knew were sinful, and contrary to my duty, I could not go on quietly till I had first despatched my ordinary task of prayer, in which I have grudged every moment of my time; and when this was finished, my conscience was in some measure pacified, and I could rush into folly with little remorse. My last reform was the most remarkable, both for degree and continuance. Of this period, at least of some part of it, I may say in the apostle’s words, ‘After the straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.’ I did everything that might be expected from a person entirely ignorant of God’s righteousness, and desirous to establish his own. I spent the greatest part of every day in reading the Scriptures, meditation, and prayer. I fasted often; I even abstained from all animal food for three months; I would hardly answer a question for fear of speaking an idle word. I seemed to bemoan my former miscarriages very earnestly, sometimes with tears. In short, I became an ascetic, and endeavored, so far as my situation would permit, to renounce society, that I might avoid temptation. I continued in this serious mood (I cannot give it a higher title) for more than two years without any considerable breaking off; but it was a poor religion. It left me, in many respects, under the power of sin; and, so far as it prevailed, only tended to make me gloomy, stupid, unsociable, and useless.”
In 1742 he met with a book in Holland which was the means of slowly poisoning his mind, and prepared the way for all that followed. A friend of his father’s now proposed to send him for some years to Jamaica, and to take charge of his future fortune. Everything was prepared for the voyage, but his father mean- time sending him on some business into Kent, he called on his way to see some distant relations, and here his affections became so fixed on one of the daughters of his host, that, to use his own words, “it never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart from that hour. In degree, it actually equalled all that the writers of romance have imagined; in duration, it was unalterable. I soon lost all sense of religion, and became deaf to the remonstrances of conscience and prudence; but my regard for her was always the same; and I may perhaps venture to say, that none of the scenes of misery and wickedness I afterwards experienced ever banished her a single hour together from my waking thoughts, for the seven following years.” He was now determined not to go to Jamaica, and therefore stayed three weeks instead of three days, when, of course, the ship had gone. In a little time he sailed to Venice, being exposed in the voyage to the ill example of common sailors, and he once more relaxed from the degree of prudence that he had observed for some time previously. One night he had a dream. He dreamed that it was his turn to be on watch, and while at his post a person came to him and gave him a ring, saying that so long as he preserved that ring he would be happy and useful, but if he lost it, he must expect nothing but trouble and misery. He accepted the terms willingly, not doubting his own power to preserve the ring. At length another person came up to him, and persuaded him to throw the ring into the sea, when immediately the mountains (the Alps) that he thought he beheld in the distance burst out in flames, and his tempter told him that all the mercy of God in reserve for him was comprised in that ring, and he had wilfully thrown it away, and that he must now go with him to the burning mountains. He trembled, and was in great agony, when suddenly a third person, or the same who had brought the ring, came and dived into the water for the ring, and brought it up when the flames in the mountains suddenly ceased. He blamed his rashness for throwing it away, and asked him if he could be wiser if he had the ring again; but he refused to let him have it, saying, “You are not able to keep it, but I will preserve it for you, and, whenever it is needful, will produce it in your behalf.” Upon this he awoke, in a state of mind not easily to be described; but the impression soon wore off, until he hardly thought of it for several years. Nothing remarkable occurred in the remaining part of the voyage.
In December, 1743, he returned home, and soon repeated his visit to Kent, where he again imprudently protracted his stay, and, by so doing, almost provoked his father to disown him. Shortly afterwards he was impressed for the navy, just at the time that the French fleets were hovering about our coasts. In a few days he was sent on board the Harwich man-of-war, where he entered upon quite a new scene of life, and endured much hardship for about a month. His father procured for him a recommendation to the captain, who there- upon took him upon the quarter-deck as midshipman. Here he had an easy life, and might have gained respect, but his conduct was very indifferent. His chief companion was a free-thinker, who seems to have completed the ruin of Newton’s principles. His depraved heart was soon gained, and he entered into his plan with all his spirit.
In December, 1744, the Harwich was bound to the East Indies. The captain gave Newton leave to go on shore for a day, but he took a horse and rode into Kent, where he remained considerably beyond his time. The captain excused him, but it lost him his favor. Owing to a violent storm, the ship had to put back into Plymouth. Newton was sent one day in a boat to see that none of the people deserted, when he betrayed his trust, and deserted himself. He expected to have seen his father, but was met by a party of soldiers, who took him back to Plymouth, guarded like a felon. He was kept two days in the guard house, then sent on board his ship, kept a while in irons, and then publicly stripped and whipped; after which he was degraded from his office, and all his former companions forbidden to show him the least kindness. He was now on a level with the lowest, and exposed to the insults of all. Thus he was as miserable as could well be imagined. His breast was filled with the most excruciating passions, bitterrage, and black despair. Every hour exposed him to some new insult and hardship, until he was tempted to throw himself into the sea; but the secret hand of God restrained him. Nothing distressed him so much as to find himself thus forcibly torn away from the object of his affections without the probability of ever seeing her again. “The Lord had now,” he said, “to appearance, given me up to judicial hardness. I was capable of anything. I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor, so far as I remember, the least sensibility of conscience. I was possessed of so strong a spirit of delusion that I believed my own lie, and was firmly persuaded that after death I should cease to be. Yet the Lord preserved me! Some intervals of sober reflections would at times take place. When I have chosen death rather than life, a ray of hope would come in, though there was little probability for such a hope, that I should yet sec better days; that I might again return to England, and have my wishes crowned, if I did not wilfully throw myself away. In a word, my love to Miss—was the only restraint I had left. Though I neither feared God nor regarded men, I could not bear that she should think meanly of me when I was dead.”
When the ship had been at Madeira sometime, Newton was, by a remarkable providence, exchanged for another ship. This ship was bound to Sierra Leone, &c. The captain knew Newton’s father, and received him kindly, promising him assistance; but he soon lost his favor, as he had done that of the captain of the Harwich. From this time, he says he was exceedingly vile; indeed, little, if any, short of that awful description in 2 Peter 2:14; for he not only sinned with a high hand himself, but made it his study to seduce others to sin also. He made a song, in which he ridiculed the captain, and taught the ship’s company to sing it. “But here,” he says, “let me be silent; but let me not be silent from the praise of that grace which could pardon, that blood which could expiate such sins as mine.” Thus he went on for about six months, when the vessel was preparing to leave; but Newton determined upon remaining in Africa, and landed upon the island of Benanoes, with little more than the clothes upon his back. Here he engaged himself to a slave purchaser, but he was made bitterly to smart for his folly; for he was reduced through his vileness to such a depth of wretchedness that even the slaves thought themselves too good to speak to him. A black woman, who lived with his master as his wife, used him so cruelly that he had great difficulty in procuring even a draught of water, when burning with a fever; and, when recovering, was glad to receive morsels of food from some of the slaves, which they had saved from their own scanty pittance. His bed was a mat spread upon a board, and a log of wood was his pillow. When his master, who had been on a voyage, returned, Newton complained of the ill usage of the woman, but was not believed; and this made her worse than before. The next voyage his master took him with him, when they did pretty well for a time, until a brother trader charged him with theft, which, as he asserted, was almost the only thing with which he could not justly be charged. However, he was condemned without evidence, and from that time his master also treated him with great cruelty. Whenever his master went on shore, he was locked on deck, with a pint of rice for his day’s allowance; and he was often exposed to the rain for twenty, thirty, and even forty hours, with nothing on but a cotton hand-kerchief for a cap, a cotton cloth, about two yards long, to supply the want of upper garments, a shirt, and a pair of trowsers. In about two months they returned. His haughty heart was now brought low. He lost all resolution and almost all reflection.
Things continued with him thus for nearly a twelvemonth, when he received his master’s consent to live with another trader. Here he was entrusted with almost everything, to the value of some thousands of pounds. He wrote several times to his father and also to Miss —; and at length a ship arrived at Sierra Leone which had received orders from his father to take him home. At first he hesitated about going, as he had become mixed with the natives, and was fast imbibing their superstitions and idolatrous principles. At length, however, the thought of Miss—decided the matter. He embarked, and the ship set sail. It was a trading voyage for gold, ivory, dyers’ wood, and bees’ wax. He had nothing to employ his thoughts, “excepting,” he says, “that I sometimes amused myself with mathematics. Excepting this, my life, when awake, was a course of most horrid impiety and profaneness. I know not that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer. Not content with common oaths and imprecations, I daily invented new ones; so that I was often seriously reproved by the captain, who was himself a very passionate man, and not at all circumspect in his expressions. From the relation I at times made him of my past adventures, and what he saw of my conduct, and especially towards the close of the voyage, when we met with many disasters, he would often tell me, that to his grief he had a Jonah on board, that a curse attended me wherever I went, and that all the troubles he met with in the voyage were owing to his having taken me into the vessel. One night several of them sat down on deck, to see who could hold out longest in drinking Geneva and rum alternately. Newton’s brain was soon fired, and he danced about like a madman, when his hat fell overboard. He aimed to get into the ship’s boat, but his sight deceived him, and, as he could not swim, he must inevitably have been drowned had not some one caught hold of his clothes and pulled him back. But every providence was lost upon him. At times he was visited with sickness, and believed himself near to death; but he had not the least concern about the consequences. In a word, he seemed to have every mark of final impenitence and rejection; neither judgments nor mercies made the least impression upon him.
At length, early in January, 1748, they left Annabona for England. The vessel, it seems, was not sea-worthy. One day Newton took up a book, Stanhope’s “Thomas a Kempis,” when a thought suddenly crossed his mind, “What if these things are true?” He could not bear the inference, and therefore hastily closed the book. But now the Lord’s time was come, and the conviction he was so unwilling to receive was deeply impressed upon him by an awful dispensation. He went to bed, but was awakened from a sound sleep by the force of a violent sea which broke over the ship. So much of it rushed below as filled the cabin in which he lay, and a cry came from the deck that the ship was going down. “As soon as I could recover myself,” he says, “I essayed to go upon deck; but was met upon the ladder by the captain, who desired me to bring a knife with me. While I returned for the knife, another person went up in my room, and was instantly washed overboard. We had no leisure to lament him; nor did we expect to survive him long; for we soon found the ship was filling with water very fast. The sea had torn away the upper timbers on one side, and made the ship a mere wreck in a few minutes. We had immediate recourse to the pumps, but the water increased against all our efforts; and notwithstanding all we could do, she was full, or very near it; and then with a common cargo she must have sunk, of course; but we had a great quantity of bees’ wax and wood on board, which were specifically lighter than the water; and as it pleased God that we received this shock in the very crisis of the gale, towards morning we were enabled to employ some means for our safety, which succeeded beyond hope. In about an hour’s time the day began to break, and the wind abated. We expended most of our clothes and bedding to stop the leaks, though the weather was exceedingly cold, especially to us who had so lately left a hot climate. Over these we nailed pieces of boards, and at last perceived the water abate. At the beginning of this hurry I was little affected. I pumped hard, and endeavored to animate myself and my companions. I told one of them, that in a few days this distress would serve us to talk of over a glass of wine; but he, being a less hardened sinner than myself, replied with tears, ‘No; it is too late now.’ About nine o’clock, being almost spent with cold and labor, I went to speak with the captain, who was busied elsewhere; and just as I was returning from him, I said, almost without any meaning, ‘If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us!’ This (though spoken with little reflection) was the first desire I had breathed for mercy for the space of many years. I was instantly struck with my own words, and as Jehu said once, ‘What hast thou to do with peace’, so it directly occurred, What mercy can there be for me? I was obliged to return to the pump, and there I continued till noon, almost every passing wave breaking over my head; but we made ourselves fast with ropes, that we might not be washed away. Indeed, I expected that every time the vessel descended into the sea, she would rise no more; and though I dreaded death now, and my heart foreboded the worst, if the Scriptures, which I had long since opposed, were indeed true, yet still I was but half convinced, and remained for a space of time in a sullen frame, a mixture of despair and impatience. I thought if the Christian religion were true, I could not be forgiven; and was therefore expecting, and almost at times wishing, to know the worst of it I continued at the pump from 3 o’clock in the morning till near noon, and then I could do no more. I went and lay down upon my bed, uncertain, and almost indifferent, whether I should rise again. In an hour’s time I was called; and not being able to pump, I went to the helm, and steered the ship till midnight, excepting a short interval for refreshment. I had here leisure and convenient opportunity for reflection. I began to think of my former religious professions ; the extraordinary turns in my life; the calls, warnings, and deliverances I had met with; the licentious course of my conversation, particularly my un- paralleled effrontery in making the gospel history, which I could not then be sure was false, though I was not as yet assured it was. true, the constant subject of prolane ridicule. I thought, allowing the Scripture premises, there never was, nor could be, such a sinner as myself; and then, comparing the advantages I had broken through, I concluded at first that my sins were too- great to be forgiven. Thus, as I have said, I waited with fear and impatience to receive my inevitable doom. Yet, though I had thoughts of this kind, they were exceedingly faint and disproportionate. It was not till long after, perhaps several years, when I had gained some clear views of the infinite righteousness and grace of Jesus Christ my Lord that I had a deep and strong apprehension of my state by nature and practice; and perhaps till then I could net have borne the sight. But to return. When I saw beyond all probability there was still hope of respite, and heard about six in the evening that the ship was freed from water, there arose a gleam of hope. I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favor. I began to pray. I now began to think of that Jesus whom I had so often derided. I recollected the particulars of his life and of his death—a death for sins not his own. And now I chiefly wanted evidence. The comfortless principles of infidelity were deeply riveted, and I rather wished than believed these things were real facts.Upon the gospel scheme I saw at least a peradventure of hope, but on every other side I was surrounded by black, unfathomable despair. The wind was now moderate, but continued fair, and we were still drawing nearer to our port. We were awakened one morning by the joyful shouts of the watch upon deck proclaiming the sight of land. We were all soon raised at the sound, and were like men suddenly reprieved from death; but in a few hours our land proved to be nothing but clouds. However, we comforted ourselves that, though we could not see the land, yet we should do so soon, the wind continuing fair. But, alas! we were deprived of this hope likewise. That very day our fair wind subsided into a calm, and the next morning the gales sprang up from the south-east, directly against us, and continued so for more than a fortnight afterwards. Provisions now began to grow very short. The half of a salted cod was a day’s subsistence for twelve persons; for all the provisions, except salted fish and some pulse, had been destroyed by the storm. We had plenty of fresh water, but not a drop of stronger liquor; no bread, hardly any clothes, and very cold weather. We had incessant labor with the pumps, to keep the ship above water. Much labor and little food wasted us fast, and one man died under the hardship. Yet our sufferings were light in comparison to our just fears. We could not afford this bare allowance much longer, but had a terrible prospect of being either starved to death or reduced to feed upon one another. Our expectations grew darker every day; and I had a further trouble peculiar to myself. I felt a heart-bitterness which was properly my own. No one on board but myself was impressed with any real sense of the hand of God in our danger or deliverance. The captain, whose temper was quite soured by distress, was hourly reproaching me, as I formerly observed, as the sole cause of the calamity; and was confident, that if I were thrown overboard, and not otherwise, they should be preserved from death. He did not intend to make the experiment; but the continual repetition of this in my ears gave me much uneasiness, especially as my conscience seconded his words. I thought it very probable that all that had befallen us was on my account. At length, when we were ready to give up all for lost, and despair was taking place in every countenance, I saw the wind come about to the very point we wished it, and to blow so gently as our few remaining sails could bear; and thus it continued, without any observable alteration or increase, though at an unsettled time of the year, till we once more were called up to see the land, and were convinced that it was land indeed. We saw the island Tory, and the next day anchored in Lough Swilly, in Ireland. This was the 8th of April, just four weeks after the damage we sustained from the sea. When we came into this port, our very last victuals were boiling in the pot; and before we had been there two hours, the wind, which seemed to have been providentially restrained till we were in a place of safety, began to blow with great violence; so that, if we had continued at sea that night in our shattered, enfeebled condition, we must, in all human appearance, have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayer. How many times has he appealed for me since this great deliverance! Yet, alas! how distrustful and ungrateful is my heart unto this hour! My companions in danger were either quite unaffected, or soon forgot it all; but it was not so with me; not that I was any wiser or better than they, but because the Lord was pleased to vouchsafe me peculiar mercy; otherwise I was the most unlikely person in the ship to receive an impression, having been often before quite stupid and hardened in the very face of great dangers, and having always till this time hardened my neck still more and more after every reproof. I can see no reason why the Lord singled me out for mercy but this, ‘that so it seemed good to him;’ unless it was to show, by one astonishing instance, that ‘with him nothing is impossible.’ In perusing the New Testament, I was struck with several passages, particularly that of the futree, Luke 13 the case of St. Paul, 1 Tim. 1; but particularly the prodigal, Luke 15; a case I thought had never been so nearly exemplified as by myself; and then the goodness of the father in receiving, nay, in running to meet such a son, and this intended only to illustrate the Lord’s goodness to returning sinners. This gained upon me. I continued much in prayer. I saw that the Lord had interposed so far to save me; and I hoped he would do more. The outward circumstances helped in this place to make me still more serious and earnest in crying to Him who alone could relieve me; and sometimes I thought I could be content to die even for want of food, if I might but die a believer. Thus far I was answered, that before we arrived in Ireland I had a satisfactory evidence in my own mind of the truth of the gospel, as considered in itself, and its exact suitableness to answer all my needs. I was, in some degree, affected with a sense of my more enormous sins, but I was little aware of the innate evils of my heart. I had no apprehension of the spirituality and extent of the law of God.”
Newton now became very religious, went regularly to church to prayers twice a day, and was particularly earnest in his private devotions. For six years he was not brought into the way of a gospel ministry, yet the Lord the Spirit taught him gradually the great truths of the Bible. He could no longer make a mock at sin, or jest with holy things, and no more questioned the veracity of God’s word. While the ship was refitting at Lough Swilly, he went to Londonderry, and was treated with much kindness. “When there, he was one day carrying a gun, when it went off, and burnt away the corner of his hat. He wrote to his father, who had given him up for lost, as the ship had not been heard of for 18 months, and received several affectionate letters from him, giving his consent to his union with Miss—; but he never saw him more, as his father was compelled to leave England for Hudson’s Bay before Newton reached England, though only a few hours before. Newton was now offered the command of a ship, but he deemed it best to learn to obey before he ventured to command, as he had heretofore been so reckless; and he therefore, having satisfied himself that Miss — would wait his return, engaged himself for another voyage, and went on board as mate. His religion soon again declined. He grew vain and trifling in his conversation; and though his heart smote him often, yet the enemy led him on until he seemed to have forgotten all the Lord’s former mercies, and became almost as bad as ever, except profaneness. The Lord, however, brought him to his senses by a violent fever while in Africa. On recovering, he had charge of the long-boat; but one day when going out in it, the captain called him back, and sent another man in his place. The boat sank in the river, and the man was drowned. Newton was several times upset in the Indian canoes, and taken to the shore half dead.
The voyage being completed, the ship returned home, and in 1750 he married the lady already referred to. The same year he was appointed commander of a ship, and sailed from Liverpool in August, having thirty persons under him. He established public worship on board, and officiated himself in reading.
In November, 1751, he returned home, bat sailed again in July, 1752. In this voyage he was wonderfully preserved admidst many dangers. Once his men agreed to mutiny, and take the ship from him. When the plot was nearly ripe, two of them were taken ill, and one of them died, which opened a way to the discovery of the plot. On several occasions, the slaves on board, for Newton was then a slave merchant, plotted insurrections, but were invariably detected, though sometimes only in “the very nick of time.” At a place called Mana he got into the boat to go on shore to settle his accounts, when, for the first time, he became timid, and went on board again. He soon afterwards found that a plot had been laid against him, which might have affected his life, had he landed.
In August, 1753, he again returned to Liverpool; but in six weeks started off again, taking with him a young man who had been one of his companions on board the Harwich, and into whom he had been the means of instilling the principles of infidelity. Newton hoped that, by taking him with him, he might now be the means of convincing him of the truths of Christianity. But he was in error. The young man grew worse and worse, until he was seized with a fever, and died in all the horrors of black despair. It does not appear that Mrs.N accompanied Newton on these occasions; but he was invariably wretched when her letters to him miscarried. During this voyage he had another illness, which, apparently, nearly proved fatal. “I had not,” he says, “that full assurance which is so desirable at a time when flesh and heart fail; but my hopes were greater than my fears. My trust, though weak in degree, was alone fixed upon the blood and righteousness of Jesus and these words, ‘He is able to save to the uttermost,’ gave me great relief.”
In about ten days he began to amend, and returned home in August, 1754, and soon prepared for another voyage. Hitherto he had been engaged in the slave trade, and though he had not then been led to see the unlawfulness of his calling, yet he often prayed that the Lord would open a door for him to some more humane employment. Two days before the time fixed for sailing, he was seized with a tit, and was obliged to give up the ship. He now remained in England, when he became acquainted with Mr. Whitefield, whose ministry was made exceedingly useful to him, and he was instructed in the way of the Lord more perfectly. His trials, he said, were light and few, but he often had to sigh out, “wretched man!” though he could add with the apostle,”I thank God through Jesus Christ.” The next year he was appointed tide surveyor at Liverpool.
From this time, 1755, to 1764, he had several times preached and expounded at Liverpool. The first time that the ministry was impressed on his mind was when reflecting on Gal. 1:23,24; and the first time he preached was in 1759, at Warwick, to some people who had separated from the chapel in which Mr. Ryland had preached, prior to his removal. It was not the smallness of the salary which prevented Newton’s settling here, but he was wavering in his mind between Church and Dissent; and as he subsequently chose the former, he could not, of course, remain. He always spoke of the people in the most affectionate terms, and often said the very mention of Warwick made his heart leap for joy. It does not, however, appear that he was much pressed to remain amongst them, as “his talents as a minister were not then very popular;” and it is well known that a man may be thought a great preacher in the Establishment who would make a very poor dissenting minister. It was about this time that, being in Leeds, Newton was invited to preach for Mr. Edwards, in Whitechapel. He met a party at Mr. E.’s house to tea, and seems to have enjoyed himself much. After tea he was told there was a private room at his service prior to preaching. “O,” said he, “I am prepared!” He went. His text was Ps. 16:8. For a few minutes he prattled away fluently, and then came to a dead stop. His “preparation” was gone. He became confused, and at last desired Mr. E. to ascend the pulpit and conclude. This Mr. E. did, by addressing the people on the indispensable necessity of the Spirit’s influences. Such was Newton’s abasement and shame, that for some time afterwards, when walking in the streets, if he saw two or three people talking together, he made sure his failure was the subject of their discourse. Having decided upon entering the Church, he had two curacies offered to him, but the Archbishop of York refused his ordination.
In 1764 the curacy of Olney was proposed to him, and through the influence of Lady Huntingdon’s friend, Lord Dartmouth, he was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln. At Olney he wrote his hymns, in 1770, in connexion with Cowper, and called them “Olney Hymns.” Here he continued nearly 16 years, and afterwards removed to St. Mary Woolnoth, London. In 1790 he had the honorary degree of D.D. conferred upon him by the University of New Jersey, America but he declined accepting it, saying he had no wish for honors of that kind. The same year Mrs. N., his idol, as he always called her, was removed by death, and the world, he said, seemed to die with her. For some years after her death he used to vent his grief and affection in verses, on the anniversary of the day. These verses were published under the title of “Ebenezer.” The following is a sample:
“Forget her! No; can four short years,
The deep impression wear away?
She still before my mind appears,
Abroad, at home, by night, by day.
Oft as with those she loved I meet,
Her looks, her voice, her words, recur,
Or, if alone I walk the street,
Still something leads my thoughts to her.”
In 1806, when he had turned 80, his sight, his hearing, and his recollection, all fast going, his friends wished him to discontinue preaching. “What!” he exclaimed, “shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?” His last sermon was preached in Oct., 1806, for the benefit of the sufferers at the battle of Trafalgar. When no longer able to preach, he sat in the pulpit to hear his curate, until laid by altogether. About a month before his death, he said to a friend who was sitting near him, “It is a great thing to die; and, when flesh and heart fail, to have God for the strength of our heart, and our portion for ever.” When Mrs. Smith, his niece, came into the room, he said, “I have been meditating upon a subject, ‘Come, and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.” At another time he said, “More light, more love, more liberty. Hereafter I hope, when I shut my eyes on the things of time, I shall open them in a better world. What a thing it is to live under the shadow of the wings of the Almighty! I am going the way of all flesh.” And when one replied, “The Lord is gracious,” he answered, “If it were not so, how could I dare to stand before him?” He was confined to his room for about 11 months. “I am,” he said,”like a person going a journey in a stage coach, who expects his arrival at his destination every hour, and keeps looking out of the window for it.” At another time, “I am packed and sealed, waiting for the post.” The Wednesday before he died, a friend asked him if his mind was comfortable. He replied, ” I am satisfied with the Lord’s will.” Mr. N. seemed sensible to his last hour, but expressed nothing remarkable after these words. He departed on the 21st, and was buried in the vault of his church the 31st of December, 1807, having left the following injunction, in a letter, for the direction of his executors: “I propose writing an epitaph for myself, if it may bo put up, on a plain marble tablet, near the vestry-door, to the following purport:
“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. He ministered near sixteen years as curate and vicar of Olney, in Bucks, and twenty-eight years as rector of these united parishes. On February 1st, 1750, he married Mary, daughter of the late George Catlett, of Chatham, Kent, whom he resigned to the Lord who gave her on December 16th, 1790.”
John Newton (1725-1807) was an English Anglican preacher, hymn writer and humanitarian. Prior to faith in Christ, he served as the captain of slave ships and made a living in the slave trade. After his conversion to Christ, he renounced slavery and became one of the leading abolitionists in England. He was ordained a cleric in the Church of England serving as parish priest at Olney, Buckinghamshire, for twenty years. Among Evangelical circles, he is best known for his hymns, among which are “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken” and “Amazing Grace”.