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Posts Tagged ‘William Cowper’


The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set)John Newton has long been one of my favorite ‘dead guys’. A few years ago Banner of Truth reformatted his Works into 4 volumes (from the previous 6 volume set) and I picked up a set. Last year I read a church history set over the course of the year. This year I decided I’ll read a volume of Newton each quarter.

Well, the first quarter is done. One of the idiosyncrasies of the first volume in the pagination. If you look at the back it is just over 600 pages. But … it begins with Memoirs of Rev. John Newton from page xvii-cxlvi so the volume is nearly 750 pages long. I did have to adapt my reading schedule from 10 pages/day to 10-15/day and some times adding some Saturday reading.

After the Memoirs of Rev. John Newton we find An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton, in Fourteen Letters. In other words, Newton’s autobiography over the course of 14 letters. Then we have Forty-One Letters on Religious Subjects, by Omnicron and Vigil (a pseudonym) and Cardiphonia; or, the Utterance of the Heart, in the Course of a Real Correspondence.

The theme of volume one is two-fold: his life and his letters. We will find more of his letters in volume two (as they complete Cardiphonia). It did seem strange to have both the Memoirs and the Narrative at the beginning of his works. In one sense it makes sense thematically. From the perspective of the reader I would have preferred some space between the two accounts of his life.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgHis life, however, is an amazing testimony to the patience, persistence and providence of God. And the amazing grace of God. It is easy to lose track of how many times Newton nearly died, or should have died. For instance, one time the captain told him to stay on the ship one night after dinner. It was his custom to sleep ashore. The captain had no identifiable reason. That night the boat sank before reaching shore meaning Newton, who could not swim, would have drowned. Another time he took ill days before a voyage and could not go. That ship sank and Newton would have been lost. There are many of these stories which should remind you of how often we may be spared without knowing it.

Behind the seemingly random chaos of life, Newton saw God’s providence. He didn’t necessarily understand, or claim to understand, why God would do such things, but accepted that He did. And so should we. We don’t have to understand why. We do need to simply trust that God has His good reasons (a subject to which he will return often in his letters).

We fail to accept the fragility of life in our day. Due to technology we think we can prevent accidents from occurring. In his day, they were accepted as par for the course. For Newton, at least, the god-complex of thinking we should be able to control life didn’t exist. Both evil and calamity existed. We, on the other hand, seem to pretend evil doesn’t exist except in rare cases, and think we can prevent all calamity.

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott.jpg

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

Mental illness shows up as well, both in the life of William Cowper and in some of Newton’s letters. This, obviously, was before the use of medications to treat them. People could be institutionalized for years. Cowper would die in an institution. Newton’s adopted daughter would also spend time in one. In a letter he alludes to visiting a person in an institution for the mentally ill, and it was a great struggle for him. It reminded me of the visits I’ve done to prison: there’s something about hearing that door slam shut and lock behind you. It feels oppressive.

This is not hagiography, which is refreshing. You do get a picture of a flawed man, a trophy of grace. You get a taste of life’s hardship. You also get a taste of societal sins: class and race struggles that marked his day. But also the people who worked to end the legalize prejudice. Today Newton might be called a Social Justice Warrior, but I think that would be quite the misnomer. He did fight to end some injustices which he saw as implications of the gospel. He was haunted by past sins of his regarding the slave trade. He kept the gospel central, and so can we.

As Newton moved into pastoral ministry, there was seemingly controversy on every side. Divisions filled England and its churches. He notes the high Calvinists considered him an Arminian and Arminians recognized him as the Calvinist he claimed to be. There were also Dissenters or Independents. This was a time when declaring oneself as a Methodist or Enthusiast closed many doors for service. Newton grew weary of such debate and dissension in Christ’s church. He wrote often enough about how to conduct ourselves in controversy. He also interacted with pastors who were younger and needing a mentor, and pastors of different minds on the secondary issues.

He provides some sound pastoral advice to pastors about subjects like when to seek a new call in addition to engaging in controversy. For me these have often been timely words of advice.

Sinclair Ferguson notes that the details of our conversion often shape the concerns of our Christian life. He notes Paul’s envy of Stephen’s gifts, as well as Isaiah’s subsequent focus on the holiness of God. In Newton’s case, he focused on the sinfulness of the human heart and God’s purposes in providence. They fill his letters. This is part of why I love Newton.

Newton doesn’t paint a picture of experiential religion that places us above and beyond sin. Rather, he struggles with his own heart, recognizing the temptations that arise both in private and public. In a number of places he wonders how a Christian can survive in London with all its temptations. This was before he was called to serve a church in London later in life. No pastors are called to serve in paradise. And neither is anyone else.

Newton is not excusing sin, but honest about the effects of indwelling sin, the world and the devil. He is critical of Christian Perfectionism that was found among some including some Methodists. Our pilgrimage is thru a fallen society that pressures us to sin, stirred up to sin and tempt by the Evil One, and possessing a heart that is too often receptive to these temptations.

“So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace; for he knows our frame, and that if was to put forth the greatness of his power, a poor sinner would be instantly overwhelm, and crushed as a moth.”

In addition to temptation we also experience much in the way of affliction. God reveals our weakness as well as His strength. It is not enough for us to consider this intellectually, but He wants us to “feel” our weakness and experience His sufficient supply. By these afflictions he reveals the idols of our hearts and the sufficiency of Christ for our satisfaction.

His letters address the subjects we struggle with but often don’t talk about. As a result, they are immensely helpful.

There are some topics of historical interest. Some of the letters mention the American Revolution. In that context he refers to the problem of the national debt a few times. He views the colonists as sinning in their rebellion against the king, but also that this is in some way a judgment on the nation.

For the anti-vax crowd, one letter struggles with the advent of the vaccine for small pox. He thinks thru the situation out loud. Does a trust in the God of providence avoid the vaccination leaning solely on Him or see this as God’s providential provision of means.

On subject of puzzlement is his view of the theatre or playhouse. He views it as a venue for sin. He doesn’t specify the content of particular plays. Could it be the sin that took place in the playhouses? In one of Jerry Bridges’ book on grace he mentions he grew up hearing that he should avoid the pool halls. As he grew older, he learned that playing pool itself was not the issue, but the gambling and other sins that took place in the pool hall.

Newton does chastise one person in a letter for attending a play. I need more context as to why in this case. Apart from the context it sounds a bit legalistic.

Volume One has plenty of material worth reading. Most of it is in readable chunks thanks to the fact it is largely letters. You can follow along as some relationships develop over time. Why don’t more people read John Newton?

 

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One of my friends is dying. We’ve known this since shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer more than 5 years ago. He has lived beyond the average life span for a person whose cancer had spread so far. I started thinking about David’s impact in my life. Sometimes we don’t realize the impact of one person on our lives.

I met David Wayne after he transferred to RTS Orlando to finish his MDiv. I had graduated but was still working in the bookstore until the end of the summer. David would come in to browse and buy. He would talk with me and the other guys like Keith Mathison when he was in the store.

I wouldn’t see David for another 6 years. I was living in Winter Haven and serving a small ARP church as their pastor. One of the PCA churches in town was without a pastor. Spring was difficult for me. My girlfriend had unceremoniously dumped me and one of my good friends was leaving the area to serve as the pastor of an ARP church in the Carolinas (the heart of the ARP). I felt lost and lonely. But God would provide.

I heard the PCA church called a new pastor, and his name was David Wayne. I was excited they called a man I knew, although only casually. I was going to be out of town for his installation so I called the office to leave a message congratulating him and that I hoped to see him soon.

When we finally talked it took some time for him to remember who I was. But we were two men called to serve as solo pastors in a place we were still figuring out. So we began to spend more time together. It was a time of healing for me that none of us realized.

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Jerry Bridges’ newest book, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, is what I now call a “blender book”.

I suppose some background is in order. My son recently had surgery and has been on a pureed food diet for 3 weeks. We take what the rest of us are having, usually, toss it in the Ninja (the Magic Bullet broke from overuse, so we moved on) and chop it up. Everything is combined into easy to eat mush, which is really important when you’ve had surgery on your palate.

This book takes the subject matter from Transforming Grace,The Practice of Godliness, The Gospel for Real Life, Growing Your Faith, The Discipline of Grace and more, and puts it in easy to eat chapters. It is not mush, there is a distinct progression to the book. He’s not merely repackaging the material either. He wrote a new book that blends all those together. There are people who would not own (and read) all of those books like I have. Or perhaps they are new to this thing (afterall, I’ve been reading his books since the late 80’s) and this provides a good summary to whet the appetite. Some will choose to read more deeply in some areas, and others will be quite content with what they find here.

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Theirs was an amazing friendship marked by triumph and tragedy. It was a friendship that produced the most famous, well-loved hymn of all time, and one of my favorite hymns.

After years of seeking a call to a church, and ordination, John Newton was called to pastor the church at Olney. He would become an increasingly influential figure in 18th century England. When they met for the first time in 1767, Cowper (sounds like Cooper) was a troubled young man. He was unstable and unemployed. They shared some common experiences, and helped each other reach greater heights than they could have if they had not met. God, in his providence, brought them together in order to give the church many good gifts..

William Cowper

Cowper was born in a well-established family that was well-connected in image conscious England. There were many expectations upon William. He grandfather, Spencer Cowper, was England’s Lord Chief Justice. Spenser’s brother Earl was Lord Chancellor.  William’s mother Ann was a descendent of John Donne, the 17th century poet and Dean of St. Paul’s. His father was a pastor and a fellow of Merton College Oxford.

William, like John, lost his mother when he was six. Where this seemed to harden John it appears to have broken William.

William studied law and a cousin had gotten him an appointment in the office of the Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords. First he had to make a preliminary before the bar of the House to answer some formal questions. Fear of this exam put him into an emotional tailspin that resulted in 3 attempts at suicide. He would be institutionalized for 2 years as a result.

Leaving the asylum, Cowper moved in with Rev. Unwin and his wife in Huntingdon. He stayed with them for 2 years, receiving instruction from the Rev. Unwin. In 1767, Morley Unwin was thrown from his horse and died. In God’s providence, Newton was visiting Huntingdon at the time. He planned on meeting the Unwins, carrying a letter of introduction for that purpose. Arriving in the midst of the tragedy, Newton comforted the grieving widow and her “adopted son” William. They shared an evangelical faith, and a love for long walks, good books and discussing topics of interest. After learning they would have to leave Huntingdon, Newton offered to help them find a place to live in Olney.

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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.”

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