In recent Perspectives (June 13 & 28, 2016) I have shared the testimony of how John Newton, author of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” was brought from fierce spiritual rebellion to saving faith in Jesus Christ, then how he went on to play a part in bringing an end to the British slave trade that he was once a part of. In this Perspective I’d like to relate a few highlights of Newton’s forty-three year career as a faithful, fruitful Christian minister. His example is instructive for all Christians (not just vocational ministers) in their service for Christ.
After leaving the slave trade at age twenty-nine, Newton served for nine years as Tide Surveyor in the Customs and Excise office at Liverpool. With a staff of fifty-five people under him, he was responsible for searching for smuggled goods in all vessels coming into port. By the time he was thirty-three years of age, Newton concluded (after months of earnest prayer about the matter) that God was calling him to be a vocational minister. But five more years would pass before he was able to start pastoring. During that rather unsettling period of Newton’s life he was turned down for, or declined himself, pastoral ministries in the Established Church (Church of England), Dissenting churches, itinerant Methodist ministry and starting a church of his own in Liverpool.
Finally at age thirty-eight he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England and began pastoring a parish in Olney, Buckinghamshire, about seventy miles northwest of London. Under Newton’s ministry in that small agriculturally-based market town, the church grew and soon needed to add a balcony to accommodate the increased attendances. In the era before Sunday Schools, Newton devoted Thursday evenings to children’s services, which were sometimes attended by a couple hundred young people. He also started a weeknight prayer meeting for adults which eventually grew so large it had to be moved from a cottage to the grand hall of the local Earl’s mansion house.
During his years in Olney, Newton was a faithful friend and neighbor to a poet named William Cowper (pronounced Cooper). Both Newton and Cowper were prolific hymn writers, and together they published a popular collection called The Olney Hymns. Besides “Amazing Grace, John Newton’s hymns still sung today include “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” while two of Cowper’s enduring hymns are “There Is a fountain Filled with Blood” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Sadly, Cowper had a history of suicidal depression. After six pleasant years, Newton had to carefully shepherd Cowper through six dark and dangerous years, during which Cowper was convinced he had been rejected by Christ and was again suicidal.
Shortly after moving to Olney, at the ongoing insistence of friends, Newton published his personal testimony in book form. It became a bestseller in England and America, and led to his gaining prominence on both sides of the Atlantic. Newton was also a prolific letter writer. His thoughtful missives were of striking style and savory spiritual content. These were considered so worthwhile that Newton was encouraged to publish them. He eventually did so in a two-volume work entitled Cardiphonia (meaning “utterance of the heart”), and it too became a bestseller.
At age fifty-four Newton was called to pastor St. Mary Woolnoth Church, a prominent Anglican congregation in the heart of London. That church also grew under his capable pastoral ministry. So many strangers came to hear Newton preach that the church’s regular attendees complained they could not get to their normal seats!
During both his pastorates, Newton often traveled to visit friends in other locations. While doing so, he was frequently invited to speak in churches or house meetings. Often large audiences turned out to hear him. But many Anglican churches refused their pulpits to him due to his clear evangelical convictions.
Newton became largely deaf and blind in his latter years, but he insisted (against the advice of close associates) on continuing to pastor his church. He preached and quoted Scripture from memory. But his mind sometimes wandered in the middle of discourses and at times his understanding seemed unclear.
Near the end of his life Newton told a man who came to visit him: “My memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” At his death at age eighty-two on December 21, 1807, Newton immediately passed into the presence of his Savior in heaven.
A number of excellent biographies have been written on Newton’s extraordinary life and ministry: John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken (Crossway, 2007 & 2013); “But Now I See,” The Life of John Newton, by Josiah Bull (Banner of Truth, 1998, a reprint of a work first published in 1868); The Life of John Newton, by John Newton and Richard Cecil (Baker, 1978, a reprint of a work originally published in the 1800s); John Newton, The British Slave Trader Who found “Amazing Grace,” by Catherine Swift (Bethany, 1991, a somewhat shorter account of Newton’s life).
Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie