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 Issues | Church History | John Newton

Great Churchmen (No 5)

Biography of John Newton
Chapter 5 by A W Parsons
Newton and Cowper

<<Chapter 4

“His sermons, his published letters, his close intimacy with the poet Cowper, his quiet but boundless influence over most of the Evangelical leaaders of the age, have placed John Newton among the foremost of the makers of the Evangelical school.” - Dean Spence.

The friendship of Newton with Cowper commenced in 1767 and lasted till Cowper's death in 1800. William Cowper was born at Berkhampstead, November 26th, 173 I . His father was rector of the parish. His tragedy was the death of his mother at the age of six. Later in life his hopeless love for his cousin Theodora, the “Delia” of his poems, was another blow to his sensitive nature. When he was about thirty-two and had qualified as a barrister, the offer by a kinsman of the office of Clerk of the Journals, which involved a public appearance before the bar of the House of Commons, brought on “a nervous fever” and an attempt at suicide.

In 1763, four years before he met Newton, he entered Dr. Cotton's house at St. Albans, the Collegium Insanorum, from which he emerged eighteen months later a renewed man. He moved to Olney and on December 9th, 1767, took possession of the house which is now, thanks to the late Mr. Wright, one of the best literary museums in the world.

Whether Newton's influence upon Cowper's life was good or bad is one of those debatable questions upon which literary critics are likely to continue to differ. Goldwin Smith believed that it was “an unhappy” influence. W. M. Rossetti, on the other hand, thinks that when the intercourse of the two friends was broken by Newton's removal to London, “one of the mainstays of the poet's activity and cheerfulness was removed.”

Mr. Fausset (William Cowper, 1928) adopts the view that Evangelicalism was “the sword which wounded him (Cowper) beyond the hope of healing.” Lord David Cecil (The Stricken Deer, 1929) allows that Evangelicalism was at first a blessing to Cowper, who needed a warmer religious faith than could be found in the latitudinarian Establishment of the period. The tragedy of his life, as Lord David sees it, lay in the fact that while Evangelicalism failed to heal him, there was nothing else that could have done so.

Gilbert Thomas (William Cowper, 1935) considered that Evangelicalism was on balance more of a blessing to Cowper than a curse. Cecil, holding that Evangelicalism, though it failed, came nearer to curing him than any other remedy, chooses the years at Olney between 1767 and 1773, when Cowper was in daily intimacy with Newton, as a comparatively happy period. Fausset, however, is moved by indignation against Evangelicalism to the opposite view. He says that Cowper's one relatively bright period was that which lay between the crisis of 1773 and his fourth derangement in 1787. Newton's influence on him waned somewhat after the earlier date, and Newton left Olney for London in 1780.

It was on January 24th, 1773, that Cowper was again seized with madness. On April 12th, wishing to avoid the noise of the annual fair, he suddenly resolved to seek refuge in the Vicarage. He remained there for thirteen months. Newton declined to regard Mrs. Unwin and Cowper as paying guests and would not accept a penny from them.

It should be remembered that Newton's Calvinism was as mild as Whitefields. Indeed, it is the tenderness of this strong man which shines through all the records of his ministry. He and his wife kept open house for rich and poor alike; no cry of distress, physical or spiritual, reached him in vain. Wilberforce and Hannah More were among the many famous people who made him their confidant. “I see in this world,” he said, “two heaps of human happiness and misery; now if I can take but the smallest bit from one heap and add to the other, I carry a point. If, as I go home, a child has dropped a half-penny, and if by giving it another I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this. When I hear a knock on my study door, I hear a message from God.”

Of his sermons, George C. Brodrick wrote in A History of the University of Oxford: “His sermons were not adapted for revival purposes. They were full of matter and not without humour. We can well understand those who heard them going away with a feeling that their souls had been satisfied with good, solid, substantial food, but we cannot understand them going away with a feeling of excitement.”

We think it just to remark that Johnson, Cowper's great contemporary, with his excessive fear of death, was himself a life-long hypochondriac, often verging upon actual derangement. Had he been an “enthusiast” instead of a High Churchman, his melancholy, no doubt, would have been ascribed, like Cowper's, to Evangelicalism.

When at last Newton's ministry in Olney came to an end Cowper greatly missed him. The Vicarage seemed “a melancholy object” ; and as he walked in the garden in the evening or looked across the “Guinea Field,” it seemed lonely to think that when the smoke issued from the study chimney it was no longer a sign that Newton was there.

>> Chapter 6

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