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 Issues | Church History | John Newton

Great Churchmen (No 5)

Biography of John Newton
Chapter 1 by A W Parsons
His Early Life

John Newton
Slaver and Singer . Profligate and Preacher
by A. W. PARSONS, L.Th.
(Vicar of St. John, Boscombe, Bournmouth, Hon Canon of Winchester)


Most Christian people love the hymn: “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer's ear.” Others will be even more thankful for that fine hymn of praise: “Glorious things of Thee are spoken.” John Newton wrote these two hymns and many others. One of them reads like a chapter from real life :


In evil long I took delight,
Unaw'd by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight
And stopped my wild career.

I saw One hanging on a tree
In agonies and blood,
Who Wd His languid eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.

Sure never till my latest breath
Can I forget that look ;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke.

The lines are pathetic in their intensity. Palgrave suggests they are of such power that Bunyan might have been proud, or thankful, to own them. The appeal of the Cross is not to self-interest or fear, but to conscience and love.

Newton’s Early Life

“Newton held himself forth and was celebrated by others as the great living example of the regenerating efficacy of the principles of his school” - Sir James Stephen.

John Newton was born in London on July 24th, 1725. His father was for many years Master of a ship in the Mediterranean trade and in 1748 went out as Governor of York Fort, Hudson's Bay, where he died in the year 1750. His son wrote of him: “There was a sternness and severity about my father's manner, arising from the effect of his training in a Jesuit College in Spain, which induced a feeling of fear rather than of love and which overawed and broke my spirit. Yet I am persuaded that my father loved me, though he seemed not willing that I should know it.” Of his mother Newton wrote: “My mother was a pious experienced Christian; she was a Dissenter. . . . I was her only child, and as she was of a weak constitution and a retired temper, almost all her whole employment was the care of my education. At a time when I could not have been more than three years of age she herself taught me English, and with so much success (as I had something of a forward turn) that when I was four years old I could read with propriety in any common book that offered. She stored my memory, which was then very retentive, with many valuable pieces, chapters and portions of Scripture, catechisms, hymns and poems.” She also taught him to pray. She died, however, when he was only seven years of age; but he never forgot her, and when in after years he sank to the lowest depths of degradation he continued to recall his mother's training. My own experience for eleven years as Chaplain of a Prison justifies me in the general conclusion that a good woman's influence, especially that of a praying mother, is a very great power in a man's life and is often the means of bringing a wayward son back to God. We cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of religious training in the home. His mother's devotion gave Newton a sense of worth. But after her death on July 11th 1732, he was harshly treated and suffered a strong reaction.

Soon after his mother's death his father remarried, and his stepmother devoted all her care to her own son. John was treated with kindness, but there was no further interest taken in his spiritual welfare. He began to keep company with “idle and ungodly children” and soon began to learn their ways. At the age of eight he was sent to school at Stratford in Essex for two years, where he was exposed to harsh treatment by a merciless master, which, coming so soon after his unusual dependence on his mother's care and his strong affection for her, deepened his sense of loss and bewilderment. He became indifferent even to his own interests and careless in assimilating religious ideas. However, he made some progress in Latin. Then at the age of eleven his father took him to sea and he made six voyages with him before he retired in 1742. During this time Newton had alternating periods of piety and licentiousness.

In 1742 he met Mary Catlett, the daughter of his mother's greatest friend. She was then fourteen. Of her he wrote: “I was impressed with an affection for her which never abated or lost its influence over me. None of the scenes of misery and wickedness I afterwards experienced ever banished her for an hour together from my waking thoughts for the seven following years.”

But alas! in that same year, through the influence of a bad companion and through reading Characteristics by Shaftesbury he became an avowed infidel; and so, as he wrote, “I renounced the hopes and comfort of the Gospel, when every other hope was about to fail me.”

Early in 1744, on the outbreak of war with France, he became a victim of the Press Gang. Probably through his father's influence he was speedily made a midshipman. When his ship was anchored in the Downs, bound for the East Indies, the captain, his father's friend, gave him a day's leave, but he took advantage of the occasion to re-visit Mary Catlett's home in Kent and deliberately overstayed his leave. On a second occasion he deserted in order to visit his father and to escape the voyage to the East Indies. He was, however, arrested almost at his destination, brought back to his ship, degraded and put in irons. “They brought me back to Plymouth, I walked through the street guarded like a felon. My heart was full of indignation, shame and fear. I was confined for two days in the guardroom, then sent on board my ship, kept awhile in irons, then publicly stripped and whipped, after which I was degraded from my office and all my former companions forbidden to show me the least favour, or even to speak to me. As midshipman I had been entitled to some command, which, being sufficiently haughty and vain, I had not been backward to exert. I was now in my turn brought down to a level with the lowest, and exposed to the insults of all.”

On the voyage to Madeira he gave way to despair and even thought of murdering the captain. He also decided to commit suicide; but the thought of Mary Catlett saved him. He could not bear that she should think meanly of him when he was dead.

At Madeira, with the captain's permission, he changed this his ship slip and boarded a vessel bound for Sierra Leone. The captain of this ship - a slave ship - was also acquainted with Newton's father and wished to treat his son well, but he became uncontrollable. “I not only sinned with a high hand myself, but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.” He made up a song in which he ridiculed the ship, the captain - “his designs and his person” - and soon taught it to the whole ship's company. A few days before the ship left the coast the captain died.

He now entered into the service of a rich slave-dealer who lived on an island near Sierra Leone. In his employ he afterwards wrote, “I sank so low that the negroes thought themselves too good to speak to me.” Now he came under the power of a bad woman - a black woman who lived with his European master as his wife. She was prejudiced against him and brutally ill-treated him during her husband's absence: “I was sick when he sailed in a shallop to Rio Nuna, and he left me in her hands. At first I was taken some care of; but as I did not recover very soon she grew weary, and entirely neglected me. I had sometimes not a little difficulty to procure a draught of cold water when burning with fever. My bed was a mat spread upon a board or chest, and a log of wood my pillow. When my fever left me, and my appetite returned, I would gladly have eaten, but there was no one who gave to me. She lived in plenty herself, but hardly allowed me sufficient to sustain life, except now and then, when in the highest good humour she would send me victuals on her own plate after she had dined; and this, so greatly was my pride humbled, I received with thanks and eagerness, as the most needy beggar does an alms. Once, I well remember, I was called to receive this bounty from her own hands; but being exceedingly weak and feeble, I dropped the plate. Those who live in plenty can hardly conceive how the loss touched me; but she had the cruelty to laugh at my disappointment; and though the table was covered with dishes (for she lived much in the European manner), she refused to give me any more. My distress has been at times so great as to compel me to go by night and pull up roots in the plantation, though at the risk of being punished as a thief, which I have eaten raw upon the spot for fear of discovery” (An Authentic Narrative, 1764).

In passing, we may note that there is an interesting entry in Wesley's Journal for August 14th 1769, in which he refers to the book from which our last quotation came. Wesley wrote: “To-day I gave a second reading to that lively book, Mr. Newton's Account of his own Experience. There is something very extraordinary therein; but one may account for it without a jot of predestination.” Newton himself did not think so, for his life at sea teems with wonderful escapes and vivid dreams which he ascribed again and again to Providence.


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