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 Issues | Church History | John Newton

Great Churchmen (No 5)

Biography of John Newton
Chapter 8 by A W Parsons

<<Chapter 7

“What, Shall the old African blasphemer stop while be can speak?”
“My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things-that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” - Newton

When over eighty years of age, deaf, and partially blind, he was taken to his Church in Alderman Lea's carriage, and supported in the pulpit by Mr. Bates' servant. He was almost inaudible, yet people flocked to the Church “that they might have the joy of seeing his person.”  “However they admired some ministers,” wrote his friend Cecil, “they all loved him.”

An interesting and probably authentic story is told of him. His servant stood behind him in the pulpit in order to trace out the lines of his sermon as the old man's sight was very dim. One Sunday morning Mr. Newton came to the words in his sermon, “Jesus Christ is precious,” and wishing to emphasize them he repeated, “Jesus Christ is precious.” The servant thinking he was getting confused whispered, “Go on, go on, you said that before,” whereupon Newton looking round, replied, “John, I said that twice and I am going to say it again!” Then with redoubled force he sounded out the words, “JESUS CHRIST IS PRECIOUS!”

The Rector appeared for the last time in the pulpit of St. Mary's in October, 1806, a little more than a year before his death. His last public sermon was preached for the benefit of the widows and orphans of those who had died n the battle of Trafalgar. He died on the evening of Monday, December 21st, 1807, in his eighty-third year, and was buried on the last day of 1807. That year will ever be remembered as the year which saw the abolition of the slave-trade. We may be glad that

the old slaver lived to witness the success of his friend Wilberforce, whom he inspired to undertake the task and to whom he contributed his Evangelical principles and enthusiasm. No reliable historian would dispute Dr. Overton's statement: “It is not only Evangelicals but Evangelicalism that abolished the slave-trade.”

Before he died he wrote his own epitaph and asked that it might be put up in his Church on a plain marble tablet near the vestry door,

Once an infidel and libertine,
servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
and appointed to preach the faith
He had long laboured to destroy,
He ministered
Near sixteen years at Olney, in Bucks,
and twenty-eight in this Church.
On February 1st, 1750, he married
Daughter of the late George Catlett,
of Chatham, Kent,
Whom he resigned to the Lord
Who gave her,
On December 15th, 1790.

William Cowper died a few years before John Newton. Newton often pictured to himself their reunion in heaven. He wrote a poem in which he represented himself as grasping Cowper's hand. Cowper had often been in the pit of depression and despair because he believed that he was doomed to perdition. Newton thus addresses him in Heaven:

Oh! let thy memory wake ! I told thee so;
I told thee thus would end thy heaviest woe;
I told thee that thy God would bring thee here,
And God's own hand would wipe away thy tear,
While I should claim a mansion by thy side,
I told thee so-for our Emmanuel died.

He was buried in St. Mary Woolnoth, but his remains and those of his wife were removed to Olney, January 24th, 1893.  Such, in brief outline, is the story of one of the great Evangelical “fathers.”  John Newton was not a profound thinker or theologian, nor even a brilliant preacher; but he was a man with a transfiguring experience of the redeeming grace of God; and by his hymns, by his faithful pastoral ministry, by his steadfast loyalty to the Gospel, by his missionary enthusiasm, and by his happy share in the abolition of the slave-trade, he did much to advance the Kingdom of God and promote die happiness of his fellowmen.

May we Evangelicals of to-day prove in the same measure the saving power of the Gospel and be as earnest and devoted in its service as Newton was. Happy indeed are we if we can sing with him:

Saviour, if of Zion's city I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name.
Fading is the worldling's pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion's children know.


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