JOHN NEWTON, (1725-1807)
A History of Preaching
F. R. Webber

John Newton, the preacher and eminent hymn-writer, was born in 1725 in London. His father was a sea captain in the Mediterranean trade. His mother was a devout woman, who taught her boy the Catechism, and taught him to read the Bible. She died when he was seven years old. John Newton had but a few years of schooling. In 1742, when 17 years old, he went to sea with his father, and made several voyages to the Mediterranean. A year later he was impressed into the Royal Navy, and put aboard the warship "Harwich," as a midshipman. Here he learned evil ways, and seems to have lived a very ungodly life. He deserted his ship at Torbay, but was captured and brought to Plymouth in chains, and cast into the brig. Later he was put on a slave-trading ship and made servant to the captain. On one of his homeward trips a storm arose, and he was told to man one of the pumps. As he toiled away, 2 Peter 2, 20, Hebrews 6, 4-6 and Proverbs 1, 24-31 came to his mind and caused him great distress. When he was able to get to his cabin, he read his New Testament and found a measure of relief. It was only an outward reformation, he declares, and not a true conversion. This came about later, when he was transferred to a ship commanded by a captain who was a sincere Christian, and who instructed Newton in the truths of sin and salvation.

While following the sea, Newton studied Greek and Latin, and was a diligent Bible reader. Later he was made surveyor of ships at Liverpool, and held this office from 1755 to 1760. On one occasion as he was about to board a ship, he was delayed for a few minutes. The ship blew up from an internal explosion, and all aboard were killed. He had missed destruction by but five minutes.

While in Liverpool he heard both Whitefield and Wesley preach. He continued his study of ancient languages, mastering Latin, Greek and Syriac. In 1764 he applied for ordination in the Church of England and was ordained deacon, and a year later priest.

His first call was to a curacy at Olney, where one of his closest friends was William Cowper, the poet. It was while in Olney that the Olney Hymnal appeared. In 1780 he became pastor of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch, in London, where he remained for 27 years until his death. On the north wall of St. Mary's Woolnoth, before its recent destruction by bombing, was a memorial tablet to John Newton, with lines which he himself composed: "John Newton, Clerk. Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy, near 16 years at Olney in Bucks., and 27 years in this church." He is buried in Olney.

While John Newton was a leading evangelical preacher in London in his day, yet he is remembered more because of the many hymns that he wrote. Among the best known are: "Glorious things of Thee are spoken"; "Safely through another week"; "Come, my soul, thy suit prepare"; "How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds"; "One there is above all others"; and "While with ceaseless course the sun."

At one time a half-starved, half-naked prisoner among the slaves in Africa, he became eventually, through the grace of God and merit of the Saviour, one of the defenders of evangelical Christianity in the Church of England, and pastor of an important London parish. When he became pastor of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch in London, William Romaine was the only evangelical preacher of importance in that city.

William Jay tells us that during Newton's Olney days his study was in the attic. On the wall above his desk was a motto which read: "Remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee. Since thou hast been precious in My sight Thou hast been honourable and I have loved thee; et unus pro omnibus."

Newton spent six weeks out of each year at Portsmouth. He had too great a love for evangelical truth to spend his annual holiday in relaxation. He sought to preach in the five churches of that seaside city, but because of his religious views he was unwelcome. Walter Taylor, Esq., a nonconformist, placed at Mr. Newton's disposal a room seating 300, where Newton preached three evenings of each week to large gatherings of Church and Chapel people.

When John Newton's wife died, he was in his pulpit as usual on the following Sunday, and he preached a sermon on "He hath done all things well." He preached three times that day, and then preached the sermon at his wife's funeral. On the following Sunday he preached on Hab. 3, 17-18, "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation."

John Newton was a ready extemporaneous preacher, and since he often preached several times during the week, his sermons do not always give evidence of careful preparation; but if his sermons are frequently lacking in orderly arrangement, nevertheless they proved attractive to the people who crowded the churches at any place where he preached. His contemporaries declare that he preached with intense conviction, and always with a deep knowledge of the spiritual problems of his hearers. In a generation when evangelical truth was often lacking, his urgent testimony proved valuable to thousands. Thomas Scott the commentator, Richard Cecil, William Wilberforce, William Jay, Hannah More and the famous Charles Simeon of Cambridge were all influenced by him. . . .

Newton was not a theologian, but his secret may be discovered in his dying words to his friend William Jay: "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour." Whatever may have been his shortcomings, yet he kept these two facts before his hearers whenever he preached.

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