Slave Trader, Pastor, Hymn Writer
"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me."
John Newton (1725-1507), English divine, was born in London on the 24th of July 1725 (O.S.). His father, who for a long time was master of a ship in the Mediterranean trade, became in 1748 governor of York Fort, Hudson Bay, where he died in 1751.
The lad had little education and served on his father's ship from 1737 to 1742; shortly afterwards he was impressed on board a man-of-war, the "Harwich," where he was made a midshipman. For an attempt to escape while his ship lay off Plymouth he was degraded, and treated with so much severity that he gladly exchanged into an African trader. He made many voyages as mate and then as master on slave trading ships, devoting his leisure to the improvement of his education. The state of his health and perhaps a growing distaste for the slave trade led him to quit the sea in 1755, when he was appointed tide-surveyor at Liverpool. He began to study Greek and Hebrew, and in 1758 applied to the archbishop of York for ordination. This was refused him, but, having had the curacy of Olney offered to him in April 1764 he was ordained by the bishop of Lincoln. In October 1767 William Cowper settled in the parish. An intimate friendship sprang up between the two men, and they published together the Olney Hymns (1770). In 1779 Newton left Olney to become rector of St Mary Woolnoth, London, where he laboured with unceasing diligence and great popularity till his death in December 1807.
Like Cowper, Newton held Calvinistic views, although his evangelical fervour allied him closely with the sentiments of Wesley and the Methodists. His fame rests on certain of the Olney Hymns (e.g. “Glorious things of Thee are spoken," “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds," “One there is above all others,") remarkable for vigour, simplicity and directness of devotional utterance.
His prose works include an Authentic Narrative of some Interesting and Remarkable Particulars in the Life of John Newton (1764), a volume of Sermons (1767), Omicron (a series of letters on religion, 1774), Review of Ecclesiastical History (1769) and Cardiphonio, (1781). This last was a further selection of religious correspondence, which did much to help the Evangelical revival. Thomas Scott, William Wilberforce. Charles Simeon, William Jay and Hannah More all came under his direct influence. His Letters to a Wife (1793) and Letters to Rev. W. Bull (posthumous, 1847) illustrate the frankness with which he exposed his most intimate personal experiences.
Newton was a wondeful letter writer. His letters to his wife and parishioners are amazingly transparent, full of spiritual edification, speak to the heart, and leave the reader better for the time invested. These days we don't take the time to write the kinds of letters that were written in Newton's day. And even for his days, his letters were highly esteemed.
Letter 28: On Guidance
"If people will be governed by the occurrence of a single text of scripture, without regarding the context, or duly comparing it with the general tenor of the word of God, and with their own circumstances, they may commit the greatest extravagancies, expect the greatest impossibilities, and contradict the plainest dictates of common sense, while they think they have the word of God on their side." (Read all of this instructive letter
Newton loved his wife so much that he wrote her almost EVERY day! His letters to her are amazing and to be read. Set a new standard for what it means to be devoted to a spouse. She seems to have reciprocated.
" It was not inclination, but business, that made me limit myself to twice a week, for it would be an agreeable employment to write to you twice a day, if I had nothing to call me off. But, however my hands and head are engaged, my heart is always with you. It can be but seldom, if at all, that you are out of my thoughts for five minutes together.
" (Read more of the letters
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