Desert Island Books 2: The letters of John Newton

Not long ago I was invited to join a local reading group. It was specific and specialised. The titles were limited to classic and contemporary Christian books grappling with fundamental theological issues and ranging from Augustine, Knox, Calvin, through Edwards, Flavell, Baxter, Chesterton and Bonhoeffer to Keller and Ferguson. I was only able to share in the monthly gathering for a short while but it kick-started me into reading in a new way and I was surprised by the thrill that I found in discovering, for the first time, writers whose names I knew, but whose words I had seldom ever read. 

Among the gems that was uncovered for me was “The letters of John Newton” edited and compiled by Josiah Bull. Maybe it was the bight sized nature of the letters that appealed to my short attention span. But I was astonished at how accessible they were, how easy they were to read, what wisdom they communicated, what insight and what it said about the preacher’s pastoral heart. Written so long ago they are surprisingly contemporary and despite the odd word and archaic expression they are clear and uncluttered in a way that most present-day Christian literature is not.

Life in early 18th century England was harsh and brutal, especially for the poor. Cities lacked sanitation and drinking water was so nasty that beer was safer to drink. The availability of cheap gin was destroying lives and striking at the moral fabric of the country. Among the citizens, cock baiting and dog fighting were common place and tickets were sold for public executions. There was a yawning gap between the rich and the poor and crime was endemic in the cities where the desperate poor resorted to stealing, simply to keep body and soul together. Punishments were severe even for minor thefts of items of clothing or tableware and could include the death penalty. These were often commuted to imprisonment or banishment to the colonies. The prisons themselves were desperate places. Many prisoners were held in hulks off shore without water or proper sanitation. For the prisoners, men and women, sometimes with their babies, the journey to the other side of the world was a wretched one. David Hill in “Convict Colony” details the misery visited upon these poor souls and many died before they reached Botany Bay. All this time, the iniquitous Atlantic slave trade was burgeoning

It was into this dark world that the evangelical revival movements began, firstly with Whitfield and Wesley, who brought the light of the gospel in all its fullness to the common people. It could well be one of the reasons why England did not follow France in a bloody revolution. The revival led to changes in society, anti-slavery movements, prison reform, relief for the poor and the expansion of schools and hospitals throughout the land.  Two years into Parliament, Shaftesbury commenced his efforts to alleviate the injustices caused by the Industrial Revolution, which included acts that prohibited employment of women and children in coal mines, provided care for the insane, established a ten-hour day for factory workers, and outlawed the employment of young boys as chimney sweeps.

It was in the later part of the 18th century, in what is described as the second wave of the revival, that John Newton, the converted slave trader and writer of what is possibly the most famous English hymn “Amazing grace” began as a preacher in the town of Olney.  Because of his special gifts in explaining the gospel to ordinary folk his fame spread and people came from miles to hear him preach. “They found in him one who was a worse sinner than themselves and who could enter into their experiences with tenderness and sympathy”.  Many who could not travel communicated with Newton by letter and it is these gems that remain as a testimony to his work.

In these letters there is humour and insight, there is constant pointing to and referencing of scripture. So soaked must he have been in the words of the bible and so well acquainted with its whole, that barely a sentence goes by without some reference direct or indirect or some allusion to the Word. In this, he was fulfilling God’s charge to Joshua not to let “This Book of the Law depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night.”

Many of his letters were to other preachers, where his keen understanding of the treasures and the trials of the ministry were sympathetically spent

To Rev W B Cadogan:

“I have seen enough to remind me of the difference of setting out, and holding out to the end, and to warn me that we can have no security from gifts, labour’s, services, or suffering, from clear viewers, or past experiences from first to last only safety is in the power, compassion, and faithfulness of our great Redeemer“

 To a Mrs Coffin he writes:

“religion does not consist in doing great things, for which few of us have frequent opportunities, but doing the little necessary things of daily occurrence with a cheerful spirit, as to the Lord.

Writing to a recently bereaved women (a Mrs Talbot)  he shows remarkable tenderness and understanding, yet points to the only place where she can find real comfort:

“My heart is full, yet I must restrain it. Many thoughts which crowd on my mind and would have vent, were I to write to another person, would to you be unreasonable. I write not to remind you of what you have lost, but of what you have which you cannot lose…….

All the comfort you have ever received in your dear friend was from the lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still; and he is gone but a little before you.

Some of his most touching letters are to his brother in law John Catlett, who was not a believer but who he tries to persuade in the most gracious way, making a specific appeal to reason.

“It is not reasoning but neglecting to reason and to extend conclusions to their just consequences, that I condemn as the vice of the age…Faith is the gift of God, but then he is always ready to bestow it. When I was first brought to consider the evil of my life, and to endeavour at amendment, the same difficulty lay in my way. I could not pretend to say in my prayers that I believed the gospel. Alas! I did not at that time believe a word of it! I was confounded but not convinced. However, it pleased God (as I am firmly persuaded) to lead me to the following resolution: Though I am not assured of the truth of the New Testament, yet I cannot be certain that it is false, I will endeavour, therefore, If I mistake, that it shall be on the safe side. I will take its truth for granted. I will study the promises and comply with the commands I find there, and if it did indeed proceed from God, He who revealed it, and sees my sincerity in trying to quit my prejudices may, nay, if that is his word indeed, he undoubtedly will, assist, me and enable me to understand it, by degrees, till at length I believe it with the bottom of my heart.”

On my desert island, as the radio game goes, you are given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. In my isolation, I would want to have John Newton and his letters as my  companion and pastor.

Crawford Mackenzie