Newton, John

Newton, John "once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa," as he wrote of himself in his epitaph, but afterwards an eminently pious and exemplary servant of God, was born in London, July 24,1725. He was devoted by his mother, who was a pious dissenter, to the Christian ministry, and his training to that end was begun when he was but four years old. But she died when he was scarcely seven years old, and, neglected by his father and stepmother, he forgot her instructions, fell into the company of idle and vicious boys, and soon learned their ways. Getting hold of lord Shaftesbury's Characteristics, he was beguiled by its fair words. and gradually settled down a confirmed infidel. Having been accustomed to take voyages with his father, he at last devoted himself entirely to a seafaring life. Before he was of age he deserted his ship, was brought back to Plymouth as a felon, kept in irons, degraded from his office as midshipman, and publicly whipped. But sin and severe punishment only hardened him the more. While on a voyage he obtained leave to exchange into a vessel bound for the African coast. His purpose, as he afterwards declared, was to be free to sin. He left the ship and lived on the island of Plantains, where he became at last the almost hopeless slave of a slave- trader, who engaged him in the meanest drudgery of his infamous traffic. He was mocked by his master's wife — an abandoned woman — kept almost naked, and half starved. Upon writing to his father, arrangements were made for his return. The voyage homeward was tedious, and from very weariness he read Stanhope's Thomas a Kempis, and the thought flashed through his mind, "What if these things should be true?" That very night a terrible storm fell on them; death raged around the sinking ship, and then it was, as he says, "I began to pray. I could not utter the prayer of faith; I could not draw near to a reconciled God, and call him Father. My prayer was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear." They escaped the storm, but only to face the danger, by the failure of their provisions, of a more terrible death by starvation. The New Testament now became his constant study; he was especially struck by the parable of the prodigal son, and did not fail to see its similarity to his own case. "I continued," he says, "'much in prayer; I saw that the Lord had interfered so far to save me, and I hoped he would do more ... I saw by the way pointed out in the Gospel that God might declare not his mercy only, but his justice also, in the pardon of sin on account of the obedience and sufferings of Jesus Christ... Thus, to all appearance, I was a new man." He reached home in safety, and the change in his life proved real and permanent. For four years longer he engaged in the slave-trade. which he did not then regard as an unlawful occupation; but his eves being afterwards opened, he did all that he could to expose its cruelties. For eight years he was tide-surveyor at Liverpool. In 1758 he began to attempt to preach, but his efforts were so little successful that he confined himself to a meeting on Sundays with his friends in his own house. He gave himself to careful study, and in 1764, when he was in his thirty-ninth year, he entered upon a regular ministry. He obtained the curacy of Olney, where he remained nearly sixteen years. Here he came into most intimate association with the suffering poet Cowper, and together they produced the Olney Hymns. They were written for the use of his congregation, the greater number by himself. In 1779 Newton became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London; there he became generally known, and his Christian usefulness was very great. He died Dec. 21, 1807. His power was not merely in the pulpit, but in conversation and in his correspondence. Several of his works consist of letters; they are rich in Christian experience, and admirable for their clearness and simplicity. His principal works, besides the Olney Hymns, were a volume of Sermons (1760), before he took orders: — his Narrative (published in 1764): — a volume of Sermons (1767): — Omnicron's Letters (1774): — Review of Ecclesiastical History (1769): — Cardiphonia, or Utterances of the Heart (1781): — The Christian Character Exemplified (1791): — and Letters to a Wife (1793). In 1786 he published Messiah, being fifty discourses on the Scripture passages in the oratorio of that name. His Letters to Rev. William Bull were published in 1847. While the story of Newton's life will always be prized by the Church as affording a marked instance of the power of the grace of God, and will never fail to encourage hope for the most abandoned; and while others of his works are of interest and value, for John Newton was a man of real originality, and his habits of observation were eminently philosophical, yet it is principally in his hymns that he will continue to live in the memory and affection of Christians. On the score of usefulness in this department, judged by the numbers that are found in our best collections, he stands among the first half-dozen hymn-writers of our language. On the score of excellence so high a place could not be given him, although some of our best hymns are from his heart and pen. Among them is that beautiful hymn of experience, 'Sweet was the time when first I felt;" and this one, "I asked the Lord that I might grow." This hymn of love to the Savior, "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds," is his; and this one of worship, "Come, my soul, thy slit prepare." The author of these and of others as good will always hold a high place among the poets of the sanctuary and the closet. In the preface to the Olney Hymns, which were published in 1779, he disclaims all pretensions to being a poet, and only claims the "mediocrity of talent which might qualify him for usefulness to the weak and poor of his flock." He further states that his hymns are the "fruit and expression of his own experience." It is this that gives a personal interest and an evident reality to his hymns quite peculiar to them, and is an important element in their value. "We trace in them the indications of his former wayward and miserable course, and at the same time we find in them the expression of the mind and heart of the matured Christian, and of the Christian minister in the midst of his activity, anxiety, and success." He himself has stated his own views of what hymns should be that are designed for use in public worship, in which the poor and unlearned join as well as the rich and cultivated. "Perspicuity, simplicity, and ease should be chiefly attended to, and the imagery and coloring of poetry, if admitted at all, should be indulged very sparingly, and with great judgment." His own hymns are fit illustrations of these views. He wrote not so much as the poet as the Christian, who must give expression to his own fresh, rich, and abundant experiences, and his hymns will doubtless be used while similar experiences in others demand similar expression. See Works of John Newton, with Memoirs of his Life, by Richard Cecil (Phila. 1831; 2d ed. N.Y. 1874, 2 vols. 8vo); Autobiography and Narrative of John Newton (Lond. 1869); Edinb. Rev. 63:1857; 67. 278; Meth. Quar. Rev. Jan. 1874, p. 162; Lond. Quar. Rev. 31:26 sq.; Bickersteth, Christian Student, p. 321,444; Darling, Cyclop. Bibliog. 2:2185; Christophers, Hynmnwriters and their Hymns; Miller's Singers and Songs of the Church.

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