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THE LIFE OF JOHN NEWTON, PART 1
A few months ago, while leading the hymn, Amazing Grace, I was so moved by the lyrics that I promised to lecture on John Newton (its author) this year. After a lot of reading, a fair amount of thinking, and several false starts, I now wish I hadn't make the promise! But, having made it, I ought to keep it. If the lecture does you no good, therefore, at least it will help me to obey that passage in Ecclesiastes-
Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God, for God is in heaven and you are upon earth; therefore, let your words be few.
If studying Church History is hard work, that's not all it is: it's a rewarding work as well. For, in reading the lives of the saints, we are also reading the Life of Christ in them. The Lord who loved John Newton and used him for His glory, loves us too, and is using us to promote the same glory.
There are two kinds of Christian history: biography and autobiography. The former are written about the saints; the latter, by the saints. Both are helpful in their own way, but-to my way of thinking-autobiographies are far more helpful. Because they tell of the man's inner life which is always a mixture of good and bad. If you knew John Newton, you would think he was one of the holiest men who ever lived. But, if you read his diaries, you'd know he didn't see it that way. As a young man he was delivered from the gross sins in which he had lived. But it wasn't until he died sixty years later that he was freed from unbelief, impatience, worry, ingratitude, and all the other sins that are respectable to everyone-but God! In the word of Martin Luther, the Christian is righteous yet sinning. He keenly felt the same tension we do. And so did John Newton.
The Grace that saved him in the raging storm on the Atlantic Ocean also saved him in the (mostly) peaceful years he lived in the vicarage in Olney, and later, London. John Newton had a word for that Grace-Amazing.
Newton's life can be divided into two parts: From July 24, 1725 to March 20, 1748, he lived Without God and without hope in the world. From March 21, 1748, to December 21, 1807, he lived with God and with hope. If I used too many numbers just now, let me put it more clearly: For twenty-three years, John Newton was a wretched sinner; for the next sixty years, he was a grateful Christian.
From a storyteller's point-of-view, the first part of his life is the more interesting because it's full of adventure-storms, shipwrecks, slavery, fevers, delerium, desertion, whippings, and falling in love!
If the second part of his life is a quieter than the first, it is also more profitable. Newton-like all Christians-Grew in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And, being addicted to the pen, he wrote down for us many of his thoughts on living the life of faith and of being a minister of the Gospel.
Today I'll tell the first part of his life, from birth to his conversion nearly twenty-three years later, and next Sunday afternoon-the Lord willing-we'll go from there-from new convert to one of the most respected and beloved men in the history of the Church.
John Newton was an Englishman born in 1725. If he had had a choice for when to be born, I'm sure he would have chosen some other time, for these were hard times in that part of the world.
The Puritan era had ended about forty years before, and most people breathed a sigh of relief for they were tired of godliness. They were not tired of the Church, however, and while a great majority of Englishmen then went to church every Sunday, very few of them ever heard the Gospel. There was some witness for God, of course, but not much, and what there was was mostly in decline.
If the Gospel is the Light of the World, then a country without much of it is a pretty dark place to live. So it was in England. There was a huge disparity between the rich and the poor-a tiny elite was living in extreme wealth, while the huddled masses didn't know where their next meal was coming from.
This widespread poverty and hopelessness led to heavy drinking, with, in London, one out of every three homes having a still to make to make high-octane and often dangerous liquor. Which the common men drank by the gallon and often to the ruin of their families and an early grave.
If anything, the women and girls had it worse than the men, for, for a time at least, they had one thing to sell-themselves. Prostitution, therefore, was a huge social and spiritual problem. It sounds quaint today to speak of fallen women, but that's what they were: fallen hard, and broken to pieces.
This was also a time of war and rumors of war with France. When Newton was young-and for years to come-boys and men could be impressed into the Royal Navy. The word sounds better than the thing, of course. Gangs of rough men would roan city streets and country looking for.volunteers. When an able-bodied man was found (or not so able), he was 'encouraged' to join the Navy with fists, clubs, and ropes.
Dr, Johnson thought life aboard ship was far worse than prison because while both met with cruelty, starvation, nakedness, hard labor, rats, and filth, at least prisoners didn't have to worry about drowning!
Speaking of the life at sea, the easiest and most profitable seafaring venture at the time was the slave trade. British ships would load up with pots, pans, guns, and other manufactured goods, and sail to Africa, where they would trade them for slaves (men, women, and children, even babies!). The human cargo would then be sailed to the West Indies or America and traded for tobacco, cotton, lumber, and other raw materials. The voyages west took several months, during which time, on a good trip, one third of the slaves would die.
If the slaves were dehumanized by the white man's treatment, the whites were too. Newton himself told the story of a slave woman whose baby cried half the night. The captain got so sick and tired of the noise, he went down to the hold, tore the baby from it's mother, tossed it into the sea--and went back to bed!
The young John, it seems, never did anything quite this heinous, but shared in the rough, brutal and profane character as the man who did.
LIFE WITH MOTHER
John Newton's father was a sea captain, who mostly traded in the Mediterranean. He loved his son, it seems, but, like so many fathers of then--and now--he was not close to his son and had no interest in his spiritual life. In a word, Mr. Newton was a respectable man, but he was not a Christian.
Thankfully, Mrs. Newton was. She was a lot younger than her husband, and was deeply devoted to the Lord and to one of the dissenting churches. She was an Evangelical and Reformed Congregationalist (or Independent, as they called them back then).
Like so many mothers whose husbands are seldom home, Mrs. Newton turned John into her whole life. She doted on the boy and was always sweet and generous to him. But that's not all she was-a sweet mother-she was also a Christian mother who did everything she could to see her son in Christ-and someday, in the ministry.
She taught the boy four things:
Firstly, she taught him to read. Well into middle age, Newton said he could read as well at four years old as he could now.
Secondly, she taught him to memorize the Bible, and he did it, at incredible rate, committing whole chapters to heart-and this at four and five years old!
Thirdly, she taught him The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which if you haven't read, you ought to, because it sums up Christian doctrine and duty in 107 Questions and Answers, which John memorized-as a toddler!
Finally, she taught him a hymnal called, Divine and Moral Songs for Children by Isaac Watts. Watts was the hymn writer of his day, and many of his great songs are still sung all over the world. But, being a pastor, rather than a song writer, he cared more about the singers than the songs, and so he produced a hymnal (which I have, of course!). My favorite is named Against Quarrelling and Fighting. Here's part of it-
Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God had made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For tis their nature to.
But, children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other's eyes.
Let love through all your actions run,
And all your words be mild;
Live like the blessed Virgin's Son,
That sweet and lovely Child.
Mrs. Newton was a very dear mother and Christian woman, and had she lived she might have kept John from what he later called, My wild career. But she did not live to a ripe old age, or even to middle age. She died when her son was only six years old.
For the next sixteen years, he would seldom hear-or use-the name of Jesus Christ except in a curse or a blasphemy.
SCHOOL AND WORK
After his mother's death, John's father re-married, and when his second wife had a baby, John was shipped off to boarding school, where he learned nothing except how to sin. Two years he spent at that school-and this was the only formal education he ever received. Sixty or seventy years later, The College of New Jersey (which is now called Princeton), conferred a Doctor of Divinity upon him, which he turned down because he was afraid the honor would go to his head!
At 11, John became a sailor on his father's ship and worked for him for the next five years, sailing from England to Venice and other European ports.
Somewhere in Holland, John went ashore and found a shop that sold books in English. Wanting something to do, he bought one by Lord Shaftsbury called Characteristics. It proved a turning point in the young man's life.
Shaftsbury believed in god, but the god he believed in did not speak in the Bible, but rather in nature-including in human nature. This means, whatever an enlightened man wanted to do was God's will for his life. The greatest sin, therefore, was not following your natural desires. The book was an anti-commentary on Proverbs 12:14-
There is a way that seems right to man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death.
About this book, Newton said-
Though it produced no immediate effect, it operated like a slow poison, and prepared the way for all that followed.
MARY AND THE SEA
Not long after this, John's father found a job for his son in Jamaica. After a time of training, he would manage a plantation in Jamaica, and likely become a wealthy man. The ship taking him across the sea would weigh anchor in three days.
John agreed to go, but in the meantime, he would drop in on the Catlett family, whom he had never met, but who had ten years, before, cared for his mother. Politely bowing to the parents, John lifted his eyes to see their daughter, Mary, and-from that moment, until her death 48 years later-John was madly in love! John was seventeen now, and Mary was a week or two away from her fourteenth birthday.
John was not a Christian at the time, and there was nothing particularly holy about his love for the girl, but it would serve the purposes of a Holy God, who would, in part, save Newton through his love for Miss. Mary Catlett.
He was so smitten by her love that, instead of staying three days, he stayed three weeks, missed his ship, and never got to Jamaica. He also never spoke to Mary because the eloquent young man was tongue-tied in her presence.
Mr. Newton was not so pleased with his son, as he was throwing away a good career.
Back then it was not safe for young men to be idle, and before long John was dragooned into the Navy, and because of his experience at sea, made a midshipman on a man of war. His friend and biographer, Richard Cecil sums up his time in the service-
The companions he met with here completed the ruin of his principles.
Recalling those bad times, Newton said-
I was capable of anything; I had not the least fear of God before my eyes, nor the least sensibility of conscience. My love for Mary was the only restraint I had left.
John hated the Navy so much that while ashore one day, he deserted and got a day or two away from the ship. But the press gang found him, beat the living daylights out of him, and dragged him back to the ship. The captain then gave him a gift, which was nicknamed the red checked shirt. It was called that because that's what it made your back look like-red with blood and checked with lash marks. He took more than 100 lashes from a cat of nine tails, and then sent to the brig.
The flogging was so humiliating that John seriously thought of committing suicide (which would have been easy for him because he didn't know how to swim). Two things, however, kept him from the deed:
He was afraid of what Mary would think of him, and he wanted to kill the captain first!
Some weeks later, the man of war sailed up to a merchant ship headed for Africa. In those days, the navy could exchange men from their crew for better ones on other ships. Because the captain hated Newton, he was traded for somebody on the merchant ship, and John sailed for Africa.
When the ship landed in West Africa, he was sent ashore to assist another Englishman in the slave trade. Little did he know, however, that he himself would become a slave-and worse.
The man had an African mistress who was, apparently, a princess in her nation, and through whose influence the Englishman had a steady supply of slaves. About the time the man was to leave on one of his business trips, Newton got sick and had to stay behind, in the woman's care.
She bedded him down out of doors and during the rainy season. His diet was whatever she had left on her plate-and then he had to come in and beg for it. When he dropped the plate one night, she laughed at his clumsiness-and he went without for the next twenty-four hours! When she saw the half-dead man stumble around in fever and hunger, she ordered her servants to imitate him, much to her amusement. When he was off at some distance, she had them do 'target practice' on him-throwing rocks at the poor man. This went on for some time.
Until the boss came home. Newton apprised him of what had happened, and he was not believed, making things even harder on him. As he lay covered with mud and lice, half-naked and nearly dead of hunger, he never once cried out to God, but only wondered what Mary would think if she could see him now.
The boss hated John so much that, when he took him out on business, he would chain him to the ship to sit long hours under the broiling sun and without a hat. Sometimes he would catch a fish, which, he said, he would devour-half raw and half burned.
After 18 months in this wretched service, a new ship sailed by, whose captain knew John's father. When he found out John was there, he urged him to come home, which John did-believe it or not-only with great reluctance!
The trip home was a rough one. In the North Atlantic, a awful storm blew up, tore down the sails, knocked holes in the hull, nearly sending it-and its crew-to Davy Jones' Locker!
As the ship filled with water, Newton was ordered on deck. On his way up the ladder, the captain told him to go back and fetch a knife. The man who followed him up the ladder was then washed away and drowned.
He was assigned to the pumps where he worked feverishly for the next nine hours. Two things were said in that time that would prove meaningful. John-trying to be macho-joked with his friend, 'One day we'll laugh about this over a glass of wine'. But his friend replied-No, it is too late!
As the day wore on, he heard something else, even more important: If this won't do-somebody said-Lord have mercy on us. The man who said it was.John Newton. For the first time since he had been a small boy, he thought about the Lord's mercy.
After an hour's sleep, John was tied to the helm and commanded to hold the wheel (this while 30 foot waves were breaking on the deck!). After five hours, John Newton began.to pray. His prayer was fervent, of course, as anyone's would be in a storm at sea. But it was not yet a saving prayer, for John wrote-
I could not utter the prayer of faith; I could not draw near to a reconciled God and call Him Father. The comfortless principles of infidelity were deeply riveted.
This brings a Scripture to mind, II Corinthians 8:12-
For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have.
If Newton did not have faith, he sure had need! He presented that to the Lord-and he was heard! Instead of trying to work up faith or repentance or humility or sincerity or whatever it is you're trying to work up, come to the Lord with what you do have-and He'll give you what you don't have!
The storm passed and the ship was saved.
But John Newton was not yet saved. He was awakened and fervent and sincere, but he was still without faith which means he was without Christ.
He found a New Testament and started reading from page one. When he got to Luke's Gospel, he came to 11:13, and read-
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children; how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?
Only the Holy Spirit could give him faith-he reasoned-and so he stopped praying for faith and started praying for the Holy Spirit.
Who was given, and with Him, the gift of faith. And the end of faith: salvation.
John's life was dramatically changed. He said of himself at the time-
I heartily renounced my former profaneness, and had taken up some right notions; was seriously disposed, and sincerely touched with a sense of the undeserved mercy I had received.I was sorry for my past misspent life, and purposed an immediate reformation. I was quite freed from the habit of swearing, which seemed to have been as deeply rooted in me as a second nature. Thus, to all appearance, I was a new man.
Newton was a new man in Christ, but he was far from a mature man of God. Years later, he put his finger on what was wrong-
I was greatly deficient in many respects. I felt my enormous sins, but I was little aware of the innate evils of my heart. I had no apprehension of the hidden life of a Christian, of communion with God or a continual dependence on Him.for I depended chiefly upon my own resolution to do better for the time to come.
His wording is a bit awkward to our ears, but here's what he means: He trusted Jesus to take away his past sins, but he trusted himself to stay clear of his future sins. His was a weak faith, a faith divided-some going to Christ and some going to his own willpower.
This confusion lasted a long time-about six years-until.guess what? He started going to a good church and sitting under the preaching of God's Word.
John Newton was a solitary Christian for some time, but he didn't become a mature one until he joined the People of God around the Word of God.
This is the end of the first part of John Newton's life. Next week, Lord willing, we take up where we left off.
I will close with a few brief lessons.
Firstly, the importance of teaching your children the Word of God. Newton's mother did not save her son, but she did teach him the Word of God. For more than fifteen years, he forgot all about it, but, during the storm, the Word he learned at his mother's knee came back to him, and this time-with power!
Secondly, our work for Christ is not wasted. If Mrs. Newton had lived, she would have been heartbroken over her son, and must have wondered why she had spent so much time teaching him the Word and praying for him. But, when he was converted, and became a man of God for the ages, she would have known what she should have known all along-
Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for we know our work is not in vain, in the Lord.
Thirdly, the difference between morality and life. John's father was a fine man and he tried to bring up his son to be a good man. The problem is: he was working on the fruit of a good life, instead of on the roots. He taught him good morality, but he didn't give him the power to be moral, for that comes from the Gospel! Let us be Christ-centered, therefore, in bringing up our children-and not law-centered.
Finally, hope in God. If the Lord can save John Newton, He can save you, and He will save you if you turn to Him in faith. He can also save our loved ones, especially the ones who seem beyond salvation.
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