A Letter From John Newton

For my birthday a couple of years ago Lindsay bought me an 1835 edition of Volume 2 of Hannah More’s Memoirs. Contained within this volume are numerous letters to and from Hannah More. I am sharing one written by John Newton that I find quite thought provoking. I considered only posting excerpts, but every time I tried to decide where to cut, I came across something else that really spoke to me. I’m not going to share my thoughts now, I’d like to hear what it says to you. What do you find challenging about it? Does any part of it bring conviction? What do you notice about the type of conversation that was considered normal between Newton and his peers? I have many thoughts racing through my head, and really can’t wait to hear what you think about it.

From the Rev. John Newton to Mrs. H. More
December 12, 1798

My Very Dear Madam,
Miss Lambert told me last night that you had been very ill, and were at present but slowly recovering; but another lady gave me hopes to-day that it was a mistake. I well know that fame, with her hundred mouths, tells a hundred fibs, and I can give little credit to rumours till I see them confirmed in the gazette. However, as it is some time since I indulged myself in the pleasure of writing to you, I embrace this occasion, in hope that some of these days you may find leisure to inform me, under your own hand, how you and your good sisters are.

Fame has been busy about me likewise. It has been said by some, that I had had three successive fits; by others that I was confined by a fever; and some thought proper to affirm that I was dead. I compare the art of spreading rumours to the art of pin-making. There is usually some truth, which I call the wire; as this passes from hand to hand, one gives it a polish, another a point; others make and put on the head and at last the pin is completed. My health and spirits have been and still are, as good as ever; but on the twenty-third of last month I found, by repeated falls while I was dressing myself, that the strength of my left leg was withdrawn. For three or four days I could not walk across the room without support. I kept house the Sunday following. This was the wire of the pin, all the additions were invented or conjectured. It is my happiness to have a praying people, and I ascribe it to the Lord’s goodness, in answer to the prayers of my friends, that a blessing attended the means used for my relief and I was only kept one day from St. Mary’s. I really thought at first it might be the Lord’s pleasure to confine me to the house for the rest of my days, that I might myself try to practice the lessons of patience and resignation to the will of God which I have often recommended to others from the pulpit. I may thank him that such a prospect did not distress me. I was enabled to see and to feel that I am not my own; that he who bought me with his blood has a right to dispose of me, and to say Go here, or sit there, as he sees best; and farther, that his sovereign authority is combined with infinite mercy, and that He has promised to choose and manage far better for me than I could choose for myself if permitted. I aimed and still aim to say from my heart what, when, and how thou wilt. My sins and follies banished me to the house of bondage in Africa, redeemed me when I knew him not,- when I defied him. He has since given me a name and a place among his children. My case has been singular.

Surely he has done enough to demand and to warrant the simple surrender of myself and my all to him. And now I am old and know not the day of my death, my chief solicitude and prayer is, that my decline in life may be consistent with my character and profession as a Christian and a minister, that it may not be stained with those infirmities which have sometimes clouded the latter days even of good men. May he preserve me from a garrulous and from a dogmatically spirit; from impatience, peevishness and jealousy. If called to depart or be laid aside, may I retire like a thankful guest from a plentiful table, rejoicing that others are coming forward to serve him, I hope better, when I can serve him in this life no more; and then at length, when flesh and blood are fainting, if he will deign to smile upon me, I shall smile upon death. This is all I have to ask for my own personal concern, and to this purpose I request a remembrance in your prayers. I will repay you as I am able in the same way. It is a serious thing to die, and it becomes me now, far in seventy-fourth year, to transition without dismay. But I well know that if this last enemy, or rather to the believer, this kind messenger, should actually approach, unless the Lord supported me I should prove a coward; though now, while I am in health, and quietly smoking my pipe, and he seems at a distance, I can think, write, or speak of him without anxiety. There is a dying strength needful to bear up the soul in a dying hour. The Lord has said, “As thy day, so shall thy strength be,” and “My grace is sufficient for thee.” On these good words I would humbly rely, for indeed in myself I am nothing, and can do nothing, and without his gracious influence I am alike unfit to die or live.

My dear brother Cecil is thought to be in a dangerous way, that is, in danger of exchanging earth for heaven. The physicians judge it to be an inaccessible disorder in an intestine. The effect is a violent and almost incessant pain in the back and loins. He cannot remain long in one posture, neither stand, walk, or lie down without a change. But his mind is peaceful and resigned. It is a heavy blow upon his people, and heavily felt; but I do not give him up. Much prayer is made for him, and though physicians shake their heads and medicines seem to fail, we know who can restore him by a word. “To God the Lord belong the issues from death.” His life seems to us very important; and if we know what we ask, the Lord will raise him up. If otherwise, he can give us submission to his will, which is always wise and good. Though useful ministers are successively removed, the Lord is still with us. There is a pleasing prospect of a number of young men, who we hope will prove faithful and able in the established church. This is a token for good in these turbulent and degenerate times. The Lord has still a remnant among us, scattered up and down the land like salt, who mourn for their sins and the sins of others. Without these, our nation would be soon in a state of putrefaction. But, for their sakes and in answer to their prayers, Almighty God has given us a great victory by Admiral Nelson, and has since disconcerted the designs of the French upon Ireland. The religion which alone can save the state, is now reproached and stigmatized by a name which, though undefined, has a magical force; and I believe there are those who would be well content if all who profess it were safely settled in New Holland. So the inhabitants of Sodom were weary of Lot, though the destruction of their city was only retarded by his continuance in it, and the very day when he was removed they all perished.

The afternoon lectureship of St. Giles-in-the-Fields is vacant. The candidate most likely to have the majority of votes is a Mr. Sheppard, who was some time Mr. Cadogan’s curate at Reading. The Bishop of Chichester is rector of the parish’ and we are told that he inquired his character of the Bishop of London, who had no knowledge of him. I was desired to write to the bishop; but this was a liberty I did not think myself warranted to take; though his lordship has upon several occasions given me pleasing proofs of his favorable opinion; and I have little doubt but he would credit my testimony if it came properly before him. But if you, my dear madam, when you write to him, should choose to mention Mr. Sheppard’s application as a piece of the news of the day, and that your correspondent J.N. assured you that he has known Mr. S. several years and believes him to be an upright moderate man, a good and diligent preacher, and a firm friend of our constitution in church and state, it might perhaps, have a good effect towards fixing such a man in a pulpit, where the afternoon congregation is between two and three thousand. To say that Mr. S. is unprovided for, and that the income of the lectureship would be helpful to the maintenance of his family, are considerations of a very inferior importance.

I am again in the press; when I shall get out of it depends on Mr. Bensley, the printer. When I was at Southampton this autumn, I finished a work, which though but a small one, and began three or four years ago, I should never have finished at home,- my engagements and interruptions are so many. I think it will come abroad early in next year, under the title of “Memoirs of the Life of the late W. Grimshaw” he was an extraordinary man; he was removed to a better world in the year 1763; but I have been enabled to glean up several authentic particulars, which, I think, are worthy of being recorded, to the praise of him whose he was, and whom he served. I have given the book, wholly and for ever to the Society for the Relief of the Poor and Pious Clergy. And I believe I may call this my “extremum laborem.” I am sometimes almost ashamed to think I have written so much. This book will make the twelfth volume in duodecimo; yet it has pleased God to give some of my publications acceptance with the people, and therefore I have cause to be thankful. They have been spread far and wide, published in England, Ireland, Scotland, and America, and in the German and Low Dutch languages. How wonderful that he should so honour the African blasphemer! But there is a time to write, and a time to desist from writing. I may say, as the late Bishop of London, Dr. Lowth, said to me, “I cannot do as I wish, nor as I have done The shadows of the evening are advancing upon me. But while I can use my pen or my tongue, I know who has a right to their service.” If ever I see Mendip again, it must be by a bird’s -eye view from the higher hill of Zion above. But I trust I shall at intervals recollect with pleasure the happy week I passed at Cowslip Green, while I can remember any thing.

May you and all the ladies accept my repeated thanks for all the kindness I have received from you, and if we never all meet together in the flesh, I hope we shall often meet at a throne of grace while upon earth, and hereafter before the throne of glory, and join in the songs of unceasing praise, “to him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.”

I am most sincerely,
Your affectionate and much obliged,
John Newton

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