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 Issues | Church History | John Newton

Great Churchmen (No 5)

Biography of John Newton
Chapter 3 by A W Parsons
His Ordination

<<Chapter 2

"Newton's power and influence were almost unbounded in the Evangelical world, and by many his ministry was valued beyond that of even the greatest of his conternporaries." Elliott Binns.

On March 20th, 1760, there is a reference to Newton in Wesley's Journal: “I had a good deal of conversation with Mr. N-. His case is very peculiar. Our Church requires that clergymen should be men of learning, and, to this end, have a University education. But how many have a University education and yet no learning at all! Yet these men are ordained! Meantime, one of eminent learning, as well as unblameable behaviour, cannot be ordained because he was not at the University! What a mere farce is this!”

In Liverpool Newton was introduced into the Evangelical circle. He became the enthusiastic disciple and helper of George Whitefield, a friend of John Wesley, and an acquaintance of Grimshaw, Berridge, Venn, and Romaine. By this time his varied experience, charm of manner, powers of speaking and writing, together with his general fitness, suggested to his many friends that he should be ordained. The difficulties were very great in view of his past life-perhaps the most unique preparation for the Ministry which a man ever went through! He was in doubt also for some time as to whether he should become an Independent Minister, as his mother long ago had desired, or a clergyman in the Established Church. He was then offered a title by the Vicar of Hunslet, near Leeds (Mr. Crook), and a stipend of £25 a year. However, when he applied for ordination to Archbishop Gilbert of York he was met with a cold, formal and flat refusal without any reason being given. It is known that the Archbishop disliked Mr. Crook for his Evangelical “enthusiasm,” and he also hinted to Newton that he thought him lacking in judgment because he seemed ready to exchange £100 at Liverpool for the beggarly stipend he was being offered!

It must be remembered that the Church of England was at this time largely in the grip of the political bishop, the foxhunting parson, and an utterly worldly and materialistic laity. Spiritual leadership had become virtually unknown. John Newton, and a few kindred spirits, “the first generation of the clergy called Evangelical became,” to use Sir James Stephen's famous phrase, “the second founders of the Church of England”

Newton now applied for ordination to the Bishop of Chester in a very straightforward and manly letter; but the Bishop replied through his Archdeacon that whatever his own sentiments might be, the Archbishop's refusal had absolutely tied his hands from attending to his application. We can scarcely be surprised that he now took charge for a few months of an Independent Congregation. Finally, in 1764, when he was thirty-nine he was ordained to the Curacy of Olney, Bucks, by Dr. Green, Bishop of Lincoln.

Olney was a large, drab village twelve miles from Bedford and a similar distance from Northampton. John Newton began his work at Olney at a time when all England was being aroused by the Evangelical Revival. John Wesley, the most famous of these enthusiastic and earnest Evangelists, was now sixty-one, in full vigour with twenty-seven more years of active, untiring ministry before him. Grimshaw of Howarth, in Yorkshire, was fifty-six and only had two more years to live. Whitefield, Romaine, and Berridge were each about fifty. Whitefield had only six more years to live, but Romaine had thirty-one and Berridge twenty-nine. Henry Venn was a year older than the new Curate of Olney and he was to continue his useful life for a further thirty-three years. Toplady of Devon, who wrote the hynm “Rock of Ages,” was to live for another fourteen years, while Fletcher of Madeley in Shropshire, the man of prayer, was granted twenty-one more years in which to watch, work, and pray in the country of his adoption.

Newton was to labour in his first parish for sixteen years. Archdeacon Lindsay in The Church's Song has said: “The parish was utterly neglected, utterly ungodly, and vicious. Newton set himself to reform it, and in this task he had the help of the afflicted young poet who became his parishioner.” He began with the miserable stipend of £60 a year. Later, however, John Thornton of Clapham gave him a stated allowance of £200 per annum. Very soon the Church became crowded and a gallery had to be built.

They were remarkable times! When the American War of Independence broke out on July 1st, 1775, Newton announced a prayer-meeting on Tuesday mornings at 5 a.m. and it was attended by over one hundred people! A list of his regular engagements compiled from his own diary has often been quoted:

Sunday 6 a.m. Prayer Meeting.
Morning, Afternoon, Evening. Full service with sermon.
8 p.m. Meeting for prayer and hymn singing in the Vicarage.
Monday Evening. Men's Bible Class.


5 a.m. Prayer Meeting (good average attendance).
Evening. Prayer Meeting.
Wednesday Classes for young people and inquirers.
Thursday Afternoon. Children's Meeting “to reason with them and to explain the Scriptures in their own little way.”
Evening. Service in Church with sermon-attended by people from many of the villages round.
Friday Evening. Meeting for members of his Society.


>> Chapter 4

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