John Newton's New Year Challenge

John Newton

In the Parish Church of Olney in Buckinghamshire is a plaque to John Newton, written by himself, that reads as follows:

John Newton, Clerk,
once an infidel and libertine,
a servant of slaves in Africa was
by the rich mercy of our
preserved, restored, pardoned
and appointed to preach the faith he
had long laboured to destroy
near 16 years as curate of this parish
and 28 years as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth.

John Newton was a remarkable man. He is now known through the 2006 film, Amazing Grace. This was a biographical drama about the campaign against the slave trade in the British Empire, led by William Wilberforce. The film's title, however, is a reference to Newton's hymn which is now even more famous than its author and sung (remarkably in the secular Western world) on all sorts of public occasions and before thousands. As many know, the first verse of the hymn is:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.

Historical background

An introduction to a recent edition of Newton's letters gives some context to his life and work (Newton being born in 1725 and dying in 1807):

"In the first half of the 18th century, England was in a state of religious and moral decay. For many years the land had been sinking into darkness and paganism. Intemperance and immorality, crime and cruelty were increasingly becoming the characteristics of the age. The national church was in such a dead condition that instead of being salt, preserving the nation from corruption, she was only adding to the immorality by weakening the restraints which Christianity imposed on the lusts of men. … If the nation were to be saved the church would first have to be revived. And that is what took place. What the arm of flesh could not do the arm of omnipotence accomplished. God was pleased to send a mighty revival, which in the course of fifty years transformed the religious and moral life of England. … Some of the leaders are well known to us, such as George Whitefield and John Wesley. They were the early leaders in the awakening and, because of their widespread labours, overshadowed such eminent contemporaries as William Grimshaw, John Berridge, Daniel Rowland, and William Romaine. As the revival movement spread, a second generation of leaders emerged. Chief among them was John Newton, the once infidel mariner and servant of slaves, who became through the grace of God, a humble Christian and devoted minister to Christ."

Introduction, Letters of John Newton, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2007 (pp.vii-viii)

Newton was not a great preacher like Whitefield and Wesley but he was a greater pastor, personal worker and spiritual guide, especially through his letters and hymns. He had a great facility with words. His writings are said to "excel in practical instruction for Christian living. His concern was to encourage true Christian character and conformity to Christ." The great Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon said of Newton and his letters that "in few writers are Christian doctrine, experience and practice more happily balanced than in the author of these letters, and few write with more simplicity, piety and force."

Newton and Wilberforce

If John Newton was chief or, at least, one of the chief leaders of the second generation of the revival movement, William Wilberforce, the hero of the anti-slavery movement, was another of that band. But Newton was a significant spiritual influence on Wilberforce, whom, because of his own personal background, he could influence in the fight against the slave trade. For during an, at times, utterly decadent and aggressively godless youth (the "infidel" and "libertine" of his epitaph), Newton had himself been involved in the slave trade. John Pollock writes: "The old ex-slave trader and the young statesman became firm friends, and whenever they were together Newton used to harp on his shame about the Trade." In fact, had it not been for Newton and others who helped stop him, Wilberforce would have become a clergyman instead of a politician.

So by Easter 1786, when Newton was 45 and the 28 year-old Wilberforce was clear on what he should do, Newton wrote to his friend, the poet Cowper: "I judge he is decidedly on the right track … I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible."

Life and conversion

As a young man Newton had learnt about life the hard way! Between 1736 (aged 11) and 1742 (aged 17) he had gone to sea with his father (his mother having died when he was 7). Then soon after began his slave trading. The Trade was unbelievably appalling. Captured Africans were, like animals, chained, shackled and hardly able to move in insanitary, inhumane conditions in the holds of boats, dying in their thousands on long voyages across the Atlantic and with women raped at will by the crew. Tony Reinke describes Newton over this period as …

"a wicked and insubordinate young man with a profane tongue, flesh-driven appetites, and stone cold heart. He had gambled his way into debt and dabbled in witchcraft. And as a young man in foreign lands, he had become sexually promiscuous. Later, as a young captain of a slave-trading ship, he may have indulged his lusts further by raping captive African women in the sexual free-for-alls on board ship that most captains in the trade regarded as theirs by right."

But in 1748 Newton was in a violent storm at sea on a journey home from Africa via Brazil and Newfoundland with the boat about to sink or break up. Newton "by chance" (or as he would later say, by God's "amazing grace") had just come across an edition of Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ where he had been reading about the brevity of life:

"since life is of short and uncertain continuance, it highly concerns you to look about you, and take good heed how you employ it. Today the man is vigorous, and gay, and flourishing, and tomorrow he is cut down, withered and gone."

He then remembered verses learnt as a child in Proverbs 1:

"Because I have called and you refused to listen, … I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock you when terror strikes" (vv. 24,26).

So Newton thought he had no chance with God on Judgment Day. But after the storm abated he started to read the New Testament that was on the boat, and something spiritually "started" in his life. He took seriously Jesus' promises in verses like Luke 11.13 and John 7.17:

"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him; and if anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority."

So that storm of March 1748 was a turning point for Newton, although he later wrote: "I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word, till a considerable time afterwards."


In 1755 Newton ended his sea-going career and settled in Liverpool checking imported goods and detecting smugglers. It was there he met George Whitefield and got to know other leaders of the revival such as William Grimshaw of Haworth and Henry Venn of Huddersfield (grandfather of the Henry Venn of the Church Missionary Society and that supported the foundation of Jesmond Parish Church). He also began a period of "self education" and theological reading. Already with some knowledge of Latin and Greek he began to learn Hebrew.

Growing more mature as a believer, he considered full-time Christian ministry. The state of the Church of England meant it was difficult for him to get ordained. When he was just about to accept a post in a non-Anglican church, he was offered one in 1764 in the Buckinghamshire parish of Olney – a name made famous by the Olney Hymns, a collection of hymns he and William Cowper wrote for their mid-week meetings. The "human" reason for getting this appointment and getting ordained were the efforts of Lord Dartmouth on behalf of Newton. Lord Dartmouth was one of the few evangelical members of the House of Lords, a patron of Olney and, incidentally, Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time of the American Revolution.

Newton, not unnaturally, kept up a correspondence with Lord Dartmouth. And, nor unnaturally, Newton wrote New Year letters. So for this January's Coloured Supplement what follows is one such letter to Lord Dartmouth (slightly edited) and which is still of relevance in 2016.

New Year's letter to Lord Dartmouth

My Lord,

We have entered upon another year. So have thousands, perhaps millions, who will not see it close - an alarming thought to the wordling, at least it should be so! I have an imperfect remembrance of an account I read, when I was a boy, of an ice palace, built one winter at Petersburgh. The walls, the roof, the floors, the furniture, were all of ice, but finished with taste; and everything that might be expected in a royal palace was to be found there.

The ice, while in the state of water, being previously coloured meant that to the eye all seemed formed of proper materials. But all was cold, useless and transient. Had the frost continued till now, the palace might have been standing. But with the returning spring it melted away, like the baseless fabric of a vision.

Methinks there should have been one stone in the building to have retained the inscription, "Sic transit gloria mundi [So the world's glory vanishes]!" For no contrivance could exhibit a fitter illustration of the vanity of human life. Men build and plan as if their work were to endure forever. But the wind passes over them, and they are gone. In the midst of all their preparations, or at furthest when they think they have just completed their designs, their breath goeth forth, they return to their earth. In that very day their thoughts perish. "How many sleep who kept the world awake!" Yet this ice house had something of a leisurely dissolution, though. When it began to decay, all the art of man was unable to prop it [up]. But often death comes hastily, and, like the springing of a mine, destroys to the very foundations without previous notice. Then all we have been concerned in here (all but the consequences of our conduct, which will abide to eternity) will be no more to us than the remembrance of a dream.

This truth is too plain to be denied. But the greater part of mankind act as if they were convinced it was false. They spend their days in vanity, and in a moment they go down to the grave. What cause of thankfulness have they, who are delivered from this delusion and who by the knowledge of the glorious gospel have learned their true state and end, are saved from the love of the present world, from the heart-distressing fear of death, and know, that if their earthly house were dissolved like the ice palace, they have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens!

Yet even these are much concerned to realize the brevity and uncertainty of their present state, that they may be stimulated to make the most and the best of it, to redeem their time and manage their precarious opportunities so as may most tend to the praise and glory of him who has called them out of darkness into marvellous light. Why should any that have tasted that the Lord is gracious wish to live another day, but that they may have the honour to be fellow-workers with him, instrumental in promoting his designs, and of laying themselves out to the utmost of their abilities and influence in his service!

… Though our first wish immediately upon our own accounts might be, to depart and be with Jesus, which is far better [Phil 1.23], yet a lively thought of our immense obligations to his redeeming love, may reconcile us to a much longer continuance here, if we may by any means be subservient to diffuse the glory of his name, and the blessings of his salvation, which is God's great and principal end in preserving the world itself.

When [many] historians and politicians descant upon the rise and fall of empires, with all their professed sagacity, in tracing the connexion between cause and effects, they are totally unacquainted with the great master-wheel which manages the whole movement - that is, the Lord's design in favour of his Church and Kingdom. To this, every event is subordinate; to this, every interfering interest must stoop. How easily might this position be proved, by reviewing the history of the period about the Reformation!

… And I doubt not but some who are yet unborn will hereafter clearly see and remark that the present unhappy disputes between Great Britain and America, with their consequences, whatever they may be, are part of a series of events of which the extension and interests of the Church of Christ were the principal final causes. In a word, that Jesus may be known, trusted, and adored, and sinners by the power of his gospel be rescued from sin and Satan, is comparatively the one great business, for the sake of which the succession of day and night, summer and winter, is still maintained. And when the plan of redemption is consummated, sin, which now almost fills the earth, will then set it on fire; and the united interest of all the rest of mankind, when detached from that of the people of God, will not plead for its preservation a single day.

In this view, I congratulate your Lordship, that however your best endeavours to serve the temporal interests of the nation may fall short of your wishes, yet, so far as your situation gives you opportunity of supporting the gospel cause and facilitating its progress, you have a prospect both of a more certain and more important success.

For instance, it was, under God, your Lordship's favour and influence that brought me into the ministry. And though I be nothing, yet he who put it into your heart to patronize me, has been pleased not to suffer what you then did for his sake to be wholly in vain. He has been pleased, in a course of years, by so unworthy an instrument as I am, to awaken a number of persons, who were at that time dead in trespasses and sins, but now some of them are pressing on to the prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus; and some of them are already before the throne.

… Should I suggest in some companies, that the conversion of a hundred sinners (more or less) to God is an event of more real importance than the temporal prosperity of the greatest nation upon earth, I should be charged with ignorance and arrogance. But your Lordship is skilled in Scriptural arithmetic, which alone can teach us to estimate the value of souls, and will agree with me, that one soul is worth more than the whole world, on account of its redemption price, its vast capacities, and its duration

… What an unexpected round have my thoughts taken since I set out from the ice palace! It is time to relieve our Lordship, and to subscribe myself,

John Newton

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