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 Issues | Church History | John Newton

Great Churchmen (No 5)

Biography of John Newton
Chapter 7 by A W Parsons
Newton and Missions

<<Chapter 6

" The Eclectic Society held its first meeting, 16th January, 1783 at Castle and Falcon, Aldersgate Street, and consisted of  the Rev. John Newton, Henry Foster, Rev. R. Cecil, and Eli Bates, Esq." -Hole : A Manual of English Church History

John Newton was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society, or as it was first named, the Society for Missions to Africa and the East. The Brethren of the Teapot (as Miss C. E. Padwick called them) met round a pot which was the gift of one John Bacon, a sculptor, to his Evangelical friends of the Eclectic Society. On March 18th, 1799, fifteen town and country members, John Newton amongst them, met around the teapot to discuss the question: “What methods can we use most effectively to promote the knowledge of the Gospel among the heathen.”

Their answer was given on Friday, the 12th of April, 1799, in a first-floor room in a hotel in Aldersgate Street, the Castle and Falcon. In that “upper room” were gathered sixteen clergymen and nine laymen. The Rev. John Venn, Rector of Clapham, who linked the Eclectic Society with the Clapham Sect, was in the chair. They were all plain men, not for the most part highly imaginative or cultivated beyond the average of their day. “I would not have a man to be quite a stranger to the belles lettres," said their doyen, old John Newton. He and his friends valued good sense more highly than elegance and would have said with Cowper:

Most of all in man that ministers
And serves the altar, in my soul I loathe
All affectation.

They would have a minister to be:

. . . simple, grave, sincere ;
In doctrine, uncorrupt, in language plain,
And plain in manner, decent, solemn, chaste,
And natural in gesture; much impressed
Himself as conscious of his awful charge,
And anxious mainly that the flock he feeds
May feel it too; affectionate in look
And tender in address, as well becomes
A messenger of grace to guilty men.

They appointed a Committee of twenty-four, of whom thirteen were clergymen, only four of them being beneficed.  One of these was the Rev. John Newton, Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street. He was evidently a man of considerable influence in the counsels of the young Society destined to become the largest Missionary Society in the world. He opposed the employment of lay missionaries, with some other Evangelical leaders, and Dr. Stock remarks:  “So strict were the ecclesiastical principles of men whom some regarded as scarcely Churchmen at all!”  In 1801 he was invited to preach the first of the remarkable series of Annual Sermons of the Society. After some hesitation, owing to his doubts about the scheme for employing laymen, he consented; but ill health prevented him from fulfilling his promise and the Rev. Thomas Scott, Secretary of the Society, preached instead. He owed his conversion to Newton and his famous Commentary was afterwards, curiously enough, a great help to Newton.

Another who owed his conversion to Newton was Claudius Buchanan. He came to St. Mary Woolnoth, seeking salvation, and, in the words of his biographer, found in Mr. Newton an enlightened and experienced guide, a wise and faithful counsellor, and at length a steady and affectionate friend. Mr. Thornton afterwards sent him to the University of Cambridge at his own expense. Dr. Claudius Buchanan acted as Curate to Newton and in I 806 became the founder of C.M.S. work in Travancore (see The Malabar Syrians and the Church Missionary Society, Kottayam, 1935). He also preached the C.M.S. Anniversary Sermon in 1810, four years after his first visit to the Malabar Syrians. Newton also greatly helped William Carey in the efforts he made to reach India, advising him “with the fidelity and tenderness of a father” and encouraging him to carry out his purpose (William Carey, F. D. Walker, 1926).

>> Chapter 8

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