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John Newton: A Brief Biography

During his final days in December 1807, John Newton said, “What a thing it is to live under the shadow of the wings of the Almighty! I am going the way of all flesh.” A friend replied, “The Lord is gracious.” Newton responded, “If it were not so, how could I dare to stand before him?” Newton’s indebtedness to the amazing grace of God in saving and preserving rebels flooded his consciousness from new birth till death. His Hymn has reminded generations of God’s pervasive grace for two and one-half centuries.

Learning the bare facts of a person’s biography can orient us to his life. Here are some for John Newton. John Newton was born in London, July 24, 1725. His mother died in 1832 and with her perished all instruction in Christian truth. His formal education began at a boarding school when he was eight and ended when he was ten years old. He sailed on a merchant ship with his father from 1836 through 1842. Eventually, Newton served as the master of a slave ship. After years of unrestrained blasphemy, wild and carless living, in which he “bore every mark of final impenitence and rejection”[1] a gracious work of God patiently and by degrees brought him to serious searching around 1748 and saving faith sometime the next year. Eventually, Newton served as a parish minister in the Church of England at Olney from 1764-1780. Along with William Cowper he authored Olney Hymns, published in 1779.

Newton moved from Olney to St. Mary Woolnoth in London in 1780. He was active as a supporter of William Wilberforce in the abolition of the slave trade in England. He maintained his ministry at St. Mary Woolnoth until his death December 21, 1807.

John Newton never forgot the rescue from sin and devastation that God wrought on him. Early in his life he picked up and set down a form of legalistic, self-righteous religion. By 18, he had been convinced by a clever sceptic of the fantastic character of all religion and Newton “plunged into infidelity with all his spirit.”[2] The few years subsequent to this saw him careless in all eternal and temporal things. He was a deserter from a ship, whipped and scorned, tormented by a slave-holding woman, sick almost unto death, and in great dangers in storms at sea. Newton narrowly escaped death on several occasions. In retrospect, he viewed these escapes as special arrangements of divine providence to secure him for salvation and for ministry.

He reached a high position on a slave ship and was given responsibility to manage a long-boat in Sierra Leone in order to sail from place to place to purchase slaves. He had rejected his former infidelity by 1748 and had several times of serious thought about his need of forgiveness. Later as he addressed skepticism and infidelity among parishioners in London, Newton described his escapade with this intellectual difficulty in a letter to his parish, St. Mary Woolnoth, in London.

I know how to pity persons of this unhappy turn, for it was too long my own. It is not only a hazardous, but an uncomfortable state; for, notwithstanding their utmost address and endeavours, they cannot wholly avoid painful apprehensions, lest the Bible, which they wish to be false, should prove to be the truth. It was thus with me, and it must, in the nature of things, be thus with every infidel. To doubt or deny the truth of Christianity is too common; but to demonstrate that it is false, is an utter impossibility. I laboured in the attempt, but when I least expected it, I met with evidence that overpowered my resistance; and the Bible which I had despised removed my scepticism. He against whom I had hardened my self, was pleased to spare me; and I now live to tell you, that there is forgiveness with him.[3]

He made progress in abandoning some of the evil practices of former years but still lacked any consistent grasp of the nature of gospel faith and true holiness. Similar to a line in verse three of “Amazing Grace,” Newton stated, “I was no longer an infidel: I heartily renounced my former profaneness, and had taken up some right notions; was seriously disposed, and sincerely touched with a sense of the undeserved mercy I had received, in being brought safe through so many dangers.”[4]  He seems to have come to genuine faith around 1749; he married February 1, 1750, to a girl he had loved since 1742 when she was 14 years of age. He became master of a ship and was gone for fourteen months, but used the time for reading, discipline, and solitary contemplation. In all he made three voyages to purchase slaves that had been collected by slave traders on shore.

Newton’s reflections on his nine years in the business of buying and transporting slaves caused him deep shame. In writing “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade,” Newton stated, “I am bound in conscience to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent or repair the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory.”[5] Having begun in 1745 on the coast of Guinea, mastering a ship by 1750, ready for a fourth voyage in 1754 on his ship, God visited him with a sudden illness and he resigned his ship to another captain. His nine-year involvement in the slave trade came to an end. He had found it disagreeable but did not consider it unlawful and wrong. At a distance of thirty-three years, Newton described the effects of the slave trade, the slave ships, the slave auctions, the life on plantations on captor and captive alike. The slave men endured—if they finally endured at all—difficulties designed for them; the women have to submit to outrages they have no power to resist, “abandoned, without restraint, to the lawless will of the first comer.”[6] He gave himself to join forces with those who argued in Parliament to abolish the African slave trade. He knew of nothing “so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive” as that.[7]

Through a series of clearly providentially arranged circumstances, Newton was able to find by 1757 a business that allowed him much time for study. He formerly had taught himself Latin, had read many of the Latin classics when on ships, and now determined that he would give himself to learn Greek. This was done to a degree that he could consult and use certain helps in the language in order to draw his personal conclusions as to the meaning of texts. He also read much of “the best writers in divinity” in English, Latin, and French. Soon he began to engage in writing and confined his reading mostly to the Scriptures. He summarized, “I have been obliged to strike out my own path by the light I could acquire from books; as I have not had a teacher or assistant since I was ten years of age.”[8] Having had some opportunities to preach and engaged in an encouraging discussion with a seasoned minister, Newton wrote his wife, “I fear it must be wrong, after having so solemnly devoted myself to the Lord for his service, to wear away my time, and bury my talents in silence, … after all the great things he has done for me.”[9]

Newton grew in his deep conviction that God was preparing him for some work of gospel ministry. For a while he considered joining the Dissenters until his mind was relieved of some of his “scruples” concerning conformity. After receiving approval for parish ministry, several attempts for a parish failed until 1764 when the Bishop of Lincoln approved him and promised to ordain him. He carried through on this, though as Newton reported, “I was constrained to differ from his lordship on some points.”[10]  After being ordained deacon in April 1764, he was ordained as priest in June of 1765 and was appointed to the parish of Olney.

In 1768 he published “An Address to the Inhabitants of Olney.” He began with a pledge of genuine concern for these people in the parish: “Every person in the parish has a place in my heart and prayers, but I cannot speak to each of you singly.” After giving a summary of gospel truth, Newton addressed six groups of parishioners. One, he addressed those who had faith or were convinced of its necessity. He encouraged them to pursue true faith and not to allow distractions to interrupt their quest. Two, those who felt the gospel to be a burden and would not give it a patient hearing he challenged them to examine his preaching and consider the sure approach of death. On what would they lean in that hour? Could they prove his doctrine was out of accord with the New Testament or the doctrinal standards of the Church? Third, he addressed those who abstained from public worship and their profanation of the Sabbath. He feared that they might be given over to a reprobate mind. Others who found time for only one public service a week should not be surprised that God withholds his blessing from them even in that service. Fourth, he lamented how generally the word of God was ignored among the people of the parish. In particular he pointed to sexual sin of multiple varieties. Such person are especially susceptible to divine judgment for God “will not hold you guiltless in the day of his wrath.” He urged these parishioners to humble themselves, repent, and “flee to the refuge provided for helpless sinners in the gospel.”[11] Fifth, Newton addressed the spirit of open impiety and infidelity. He held up his own case as one in which a blasphemer, persecutor, and injurious man “to a degree I cannot express” obtained mercy. “The exceeding abundant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ brought me out of that dreadful state” He urged this sort of unbeliever to seek the Lord while he may be found; if not, do not increase wrath by making jest of the Scriptures, the gospel, and those who love them. Sixth, there was a considerable number that were not believers, but were not openly profane, were regular in their attendance, but probably rested in their outward privilege and thought their freedom from open abominations made them safe. To them he urged, “May the Lord awaken you to a diligent search into your own hearts, and into his holy word, and not suffer you to take up with any thing short of a real and saving change.”[12]

In both parish ministries, at Olney and in London, Newton experienced spiritual success and ministerial distress. At Olney, his influence on William Cowper induced in Cowper “the only sunshine he ever enjoyed, through the cloudy day of his afflicted life.”[13] Cowper’s intense state of mental and spiritual distress had led him to serious plans and attempts at suicide. A mental confrontation with Romans 3:25 and the reality of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ led Cowper to an experiential appropriation of gospel comforts. He moved to Olney in 1767 for the purpose of receiving the preaching and pastoral care of Newton. Cowper devoted himself to consistent and helpful ministry among the parishioners at Olney. Newton and Cowper often discussed evangelical doctrine and spiritual life, sharing common passion for the rescue of their lives by divine grace including their collaboration on Olney Hymns. The publication of Olney Hymns by Newton was Cowper’s first literary appearance. Among these were “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” based on Zechariah 13:1, “Oh, For a Closer Walk With God,” based on Genesis 5:24, and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” containing the line “Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” Subsequent to writing this hymn Cowper relapsed into a severe depression for almost a year. Newton gave him consistent pastoral care during this time.

J. M. Ross, the memoirist of Cowper in Cowper’s Poetical Works [14] nursed an intense dislike for Newton and his piety as well as his theology. He called him an “intensely evangelical and energetic divine.” He blamed him for Cowper’s’ relapse into severe depression by characterizing his influence as driving him to “pharisaic minuteness” prompted by religious feelings … unusually gloomy and atrabiliar.”[15] He called Cowper’s happy labors beside Newton in ministry as “the unhealthy nature of the work in which he was now engaged.” Ross possessed the uncanny talent for passing around his insulting evaluations by saying of Cowper, “His thoughts were neither mystical nor profound; they were not even subtle or warmly poetical. Seldom indeed has so genuine a poet possessed so poor an imagination.”[16] Ross did recognize, however, the consistent and even powerful influence Cowper had on the middle classes of Englishmen. The religious received him as a notable ally. He did not “veil in doubtful haze the truths of Christianity,” but with him “all is as orthodox as a sermon.” Englishmen could understand him as “easily as they did their clergymen on Sundays.”[17] The clarity and resonant relevance of Cowper’s poetry was largely due to his years of hearing the sermons of Newton, even if later years and Cowper’s unstable mental condition and wide variety friendships and pastimes cooled their relationships.

Also, at the time that Cowper had lapsed into a period of deep mental and emotional instability, Newton began an extended correspondence with Thomas Scott, writing at least eight letters from June to December, 1775.[18] Scott, verging toward Socinianism and resistant to creedal subscription, looked on Newton as shackled by “enthusiastic delusions” and “rank fanaticism.” Newton dealt tenderly with him. Without insulting him or treating him condescendingly, he discussed both orthodoxy and Christian experience with friendly firmness. Giving only mild defense of the necessity of subscribing a creed and practicing a liturgy, Newton was firm on the specific doctrinal issues that he suspected were at the bottom of Scott’s challenges. “I am far from thinking the Socinians all hypocrites,” Newton assured him, “but I think they are all in a most dangerous error; nor do their principles exhibit to my view a whit more of the genuine fruits of Christianity than deism itself.” In the matter of God’s acceptance of sincerity in place of accurate understand or mental commitment, Newton responded, “It is not through defect of understanding, but a want of simplicity and humility, that so many stumble like the blind at noon-day, and see nothing of those great truths which are written in the Gospel as with a sun-beam.”[19] Newton wrote of total depravity, the necessity of regeneration and its insuperable power, the Trinity, justification and other doctrines as clearly taught in Scripture and verified in experience. “Since my mind has been enlightened, “Newton testified to Scott, “everything in me and everything around me, confirms and explains to me what I read in Scripture; and though I have reason enough to distrust my own judgment every hour, yet I have no reason to question the great essentials, which the Lord himself hath taught me.”[20] Scott’s final reception of these truth and experience of this faith in Jesus was yet several years away. Eventually, however, he was brought to see the truth of Newton’s doctrine and experience and to become the “humble recipient of the kingdom of heaven as a little child.”[21]

Despite his consistent, loving, and biblically faithful labors at Olney, the group of faithful hearers which afforded him joy and support passed away but were not replaced by other persons of similar spiritual experience. Finally the unconverted so dominated the social life of the parish, that on one occasion Newton had to ransom his house from their intent to do violence on a particularly rowdy and riotous evening. Within a year he left Olney for a new appointment in London. Newton told Richard Cecil that “he should never have left the place while he lived, had not so incorrigible a spirit prevailed, in a parish which he had long laboured to reform.”[22]

The move to London did not eliminate the difficulties of an evangelical, experientially-alive Anglican priest in an Anglican parish. Criticism mounted during his first year of parish ministry there, and he felt that an explanatory letter concerning his doctrine and his preaching was necessary. On November 1, 1781, he published “A Token of Affection and Respect to the Parishioners of St. Mary Woolnoth.”[23] Part of the difficulty of a parish ministry in an ecclesiastical establishment is that confidence in the regenerate character of the congregation must be very low. The minister does not minister to a church. His is a task to herd goats  and seek to justify his ministry and his message to those who are naturally and principially opposed to his purpose. The appeal Newton makes to the parish is admirable for its courage, its spirit of legitimate deference, and its undercurrent of evangelism, but as an implied comments on the condition of the parish, it is lamentable.

He admonishes those who are in the parish and have received the baptism of the established Church of England whom he never sees on the Lord’s Day. The auditory is numerous but Newton observed, “I see so few of my own parishioners among them.”[24]  Many to whom the “word of salvation is sent, refuse to hear it.” Also, Newton observed the progress of “infidelity” among them, a general disregard for the Christian religion in particular. He reminded them clearly that the facts, provisions, and conditions of the gospel message were matters of divine revelation and they “cannot wholly avoid painful apprehensions, lest the Bible, which they wish to be false, should prove to be true.”[25] Many others perhaps believe in a formal sense that the Bible is true but give little energy to either knowing or obeying it. They are offended when “a faithful preacher forces upon your conscience” the consequences of careless regard to the dictates of the final judge and, therefore, find sufficient excuse for not hearing him again. Some still attend worship, but do it in other parishes to avoid the intensely Bible-centered preaching of Newton. They should be careful that their contempt is not really against him, though they may delude themselves to think so, but is against “the doctrine of the prophets and apostles, and of Christ himself.”[26]  Newton professed never to have purposely given offense, but also he knew “that if I would be faithful to my conscience, some of my hearers must be displeased.”[27]  How to sort out the meaning of terms of opprobrium used against him, Newton was unsure; he was sure, however, that any term used, such as “Methodist,” even if void of any clear meaning would be “sufficient proof that it cannot be worth their while to hear me.”[28]  Others complained that he preached too long at forty-five minutes when they were quite eager to use a much longer portion of their day to hear useless entertainment or political speech. “It is not so much the length,” Newton warned, “as the subject matter that wearies you.”[29] Other complained that he preached extempore and did not read his sermons. His complaint evoked the most extensive response from Newton. He explained the historical situation which led to reading sermons as a safety measure for the preacher and how that developed into a mark of scholarly preparedness. Newton objected to the impression and showed how extempore reasoning and admonition showed expertise and knowledge in a way that a manuscript did not. Scripture topics, moreover, are fit “to awaken the strongest emotions, and to draw forth the highest exertions of which the human mind is capable.”[30] Since his subject matter is of infinitely “more concern to his hearers” than any other subject upon which men can place their thoughts or employ their tongues, “shall a minister of the gospel … be thought the only man who has chosen a subject incapable of justifying his earnestness.” Given that his office requires him to “unfold the wonders of redemption, or to enlarge on the solemn themes of judgment, heaven and hell” can it be conceived that he should not indulge “such thoughts and expressions upon the spot, as the most judicious part of his auditory need not disdain to hear?”[31] He urged them to consider with penetrating earnestness that eternity was at stake and that they could not be accepted by him in the great day of his appearing if they were not “born from above, delivered from the love and spirit of the world, and made partakers of the love and spirit of the Lord Jesus.”[32] He declared himself without guilt of their blood in that day. To those who believed the gospel, had not deserted their place under his preaching, and maintained a viable experiential fellowship with Christ in his saving work, he gave a serious call. They could assist him to stop the mouths of gainsayers with conduct consistent with gospel faith and spiritual virtue. Such consistent heavenly-mindedness would “constrain them to acknowledge, that the doctrines of grace, which I preach, when rightly understood and cordially embraced, are productive of peace, contentment, integrity, benevolence, and humility.” Many would look for their halting and miscarriages, but the Lord has “engaged to support, to guide, and to guard you, and at length to make you more than conquerors, and to bestow upon you a crown of everlasting life.”[33]

Very few days of his life subsequent to his appointment to Olney were free of his astonished admiration of such a transaction of grace and eternal security. His letter to London parishioners stated, “No person in the congregation can be more averse from the doctrines which I now preach than I myself once was.”[34] In a letter to John Ryland, Jr., Newton pointed to the providence of God in the death of useful ministers and in the calling of the most unlikely persons to gospel ministry. Samuel Pearce was taken very early in life (33 years of age), “not half my age,” wrote Newton, “but undoubtedly he lived to finish what the Lord had appointed him to do. So shall you and I.” Newton considered himself old at 74 but expressed his confidence in divine purpose, “Old as I am, I shall not die before my set time.” He wanted to “improve the present” and be prepared for the future. “Indeed,” he wrote, “I see little in this world worth living for on its own account; though I think no one has less reason to be weary of life. But I am not my own, and desire to have no choice for myself. May we live to His praise and die in His peace.” Further meditation on these phenomena brought Newton to observe, “The usefulness of some is protracted, while others like Mr. Pearce, are taken away early. … He who has the fulness of the spirit will never want instruments to carry on his work. He can raise them up as it were from the very stones.”[35]

Newton regularly called to mind the testimony of Paul as an encouragement. After Paul’s description of the deep rebelliousness and injurious intent of his life, he said of himself that of sinners “I am the chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). For Newton, this meant that even chief sinners could be saved and would thereby magnify the grace of God. He frequently drew attention to Paul’s testimony for he knew that its broad parameters enveloped him in its embrace. In a hymn entitled “Encouragement” Newton wrote

Of sinners the chief,

And viler than all,

The jailer or thief,

Manasseh or Saul;

Since they were forgiv’n,

Why should I despair,

While Christ is in Heav’n

And still answers prayer.[36]

Not only was Paul’s salvation designed for the encouragement of others, but his vibrant apostolic ministry given him by grace stirred Newton with God’s sovereign and surprising intentions. Paul received the grace of God for salvation and further to be an apostle, a preacher, and a teacher (2 Timothy 1:11). In fact, the glorious gospel of the blessed God was committed to his charge (1 Timothy 1:11). The grace to Newton imitated that to Paul even in that. In reflecting on his appointment to the parish of St. Mary Woolnoth in London, Newton wrote, “that one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves, should be plucked from his forlorn state of exile on the coast of Africa, and at length be appointed minister of the parish of the first magistrate of the first city in the world—that he should be there, not only testify of such grace, but stand up as a singular instance and monument of it—that he should be enabled to record it in his history, preaching, and writings, to the world at large—is a fact I can contemplate with admiration, but never fully estimate.” [37]

In 1799 Newton wrote John Ryland, Jr. with further expressions of amazement at God’s choice and qualifying of unlikely instruments. “He can call the most unworthy persons, and bring them from the most unlikely places, to labour in his vineyard. Had it not been so, you would have never heard of me. From what a dung hill of sin and misery did he raise me to place me among the princes of his people! Consider what I was and where I was (in Africa) and you must acknowledge I am a singular instance of sovereignty and the riches of His mercy!”[38] When friends thought at eighty years of age that he had gone beyond the competence required to maintain a pulpit ministry encouraged him to step down, he replied, “What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”[39]

Newton’s epitaph inscribed on a memorial tablet at St. Mary Woolnoth celebrated the truly surprising grace of God in his conversion as well as in his long and effective ministry.

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.


[1] John Newton, The Works of John Newton, 6 vols (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985) 1:24. Hereinafter designated as Works.

[2] Works, 1:10

[3] Works, 6:569.

[4] Works, 1:32.

[5] Works, 6:522.

[6] Works, 6:535.

[7] Works, 6:548.

[8] Works, 1:50.

[9] Works, 1:54.

[10] Works, 1:55.

[11] Works, 6:559.

[12] Works, 6:562.

[13] Works, 1:61.

[14] William Cowper, Cowper’s Poetical Works. Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, nd. Hereinafter designated as Cowper’s. An introductory “Life of William Cowper” was written by J. M Ross.

[15] Cowper’s, v.

[16] Cowper’s, xiv.

[17] Cowper’s, xvi.

[18] These letters are contained in Newton’s Works, 6:556-618. Thomas Scott gave an account of his skepticism and his rescue from it in the Force of Truth, London: Printed for G. Keith, 1779. Scott’s “authentic narrative” was published the same year that Olney Hymns was published.

[19] Works, 1:568.

[20] Works, 1:570.

[21] Works, 1:68.

[22] Works, 1:69.

[23] Works, 6: 567-583.

[24] Works, 6: 568.

[25] Works, 6: 569.

[26] Works, 6: 371.

[27] Works, 6: 572.

[28] Works, 6: 574.

[29] Works, 6: 574, 575.

[30] Works, 6: 577.

[31] Works, 6: 578..

[32] Works, 6: 580, 581.

[33] Works, 6:583.

[34] Works, 6: 582.

[35] Grant Gordon, Ed. Wise Counsel, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009) 369, 370.

[36] Works, 3:581.

[37] Works, 1:73. Quote included in the biographical introduction by Richard Cecil.

[38] Wise Counsel, 370, 371.

[39] Works, 1:88

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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