My ‘relationship’ with John Newton was a slowly developing affair. I’m sure you’ve had friendships like that. You meet a person, don’t think much of them at the time. Slowly you begin to see more of them. You see your common interests, and their strengths, previously hidden, come to light. Your appreciation grows.
That is my relationship with Newton. Ah, he wrote a few hymns, that’s nice. Over the years people shared some of his letters. I got to know a little bit more of his life. I read Piper’s short account of his life and bought The Letters of John Newton and Wise Counsel. Over time he has become one of my heroes in the faith. His importance to the church and the world is matched by few.
John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace attempts to let us in on the ‘secret’ that is the life of John Newton. The book is easy to read, with short chapters that fit into busy schedules. Aitken does not hide from us the sinfulness and brokenness of the young Newton. He was the son of a captain whose mother died when he was young. Her gospel influence gone, he often lived with relatives while his father was at sea. He would follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon earned a reputation as being a despicable human being. He was a piece of work, as they say. Some of the words used to describe him would be blasphemer, fornicator, obstinate rabble rouser, dabbler in black arts and more.
“For the fourth time on four successive ships, Newton managed to alienate his captain.”
He didn’t just know sin, he knew misery. That miser, real or perceived, tempted him to sin at times. He was impressed into service in the British navy. When the ship’s orders changed from Africa to India, he knew his separation from the woman he wanted to marry would go from 12-18 months up to 5 years. For a time he was essentially a slave to his boss’ wife while in Africa. Numerous times he was narrowly escaped death.
It is also something of a love story. He would fall in love with his younger cousin Polly. Eventually he would win her heart and her hand in marriage. He loved her much, sometimes he feared too much. Sharing his faith, if not his intellectual capabilities, she helped him create a warm home marked for its hospitality. Her frequent illnesses would be the cause of his constant pursuit of grace.
His conversion would be “accidental” as he was rescued from Africa and given passage on a ship. He was bored and started to read The Imitation of Christ. When he became captain of a slave ship (keep in mind no one was speaking out against slavery at the time) he’d spend his free time learning Greek, Latin and the Scriptures. He was a self-educated man. And his education on the slave ship would prepare him for his pivotal role in ending the slave trade.
That role should not be denied nor diminished. It was Newton who convinced the newly converted Wilberforce to remain in politics instead of going into the ministry. It was his publicized account of his days as a slave ship captain that helped the British public understand what was happening to other human beings.
He changed the shape of worship as well. George Whitefield was an important mentor when he was a young Christian. His ties with the ‘enthusiasts’ nearly kept him out of ministry in the Church of England. But there he began to write hymns as a way to instruct the unlearned in Olney in matters of faith.
He would bring his friend, William Cowper to the attention of the world. He would prevent his dear friend, who struggled with depression, from committing suicide. He would help his poetry become published.
Newton was known for his friendships and influence. As others had mentored him, he began to mentor young pastors like William Carey. Thru these friendships men were sent off to the mission field as the modern missions movement began. These relationships also spawned the incredible correspondence that he undertook. He dispatched wisdom and encouragement to many pastors and lay people. Wisdom that still encourages people.
As I read this book, my appreciation for this man grew. His influence upon important events is nearly immeasurable. So you see, this is a story of redemption. Not how Newton saved himself, but how Jesus saved Newton and used him to save many others directly and indirectly. I suppose a good book leaves you wanting more. Aitken’s biography left me wanting more.