Glimpses of Church History: John Newton the Great Letter-Writer
Many if not most professing Christians are familiar the song “Amazing Grace.” The hymn’s author John Newton (1725-1807), however, is not as well known. In this brief article, I want acquaint you with Newton so that you might (1) praise God for His grace in the life of a sinner; and (2) learn from Newton’s example in one specific area.
A Debauched Sailor
Newton grew up without much spiritual or moral direction. His mother was a strong Christian, but she died when John was only six. His irreligious father—a seafarer by trade—did not take an active role in disciplining or training his son, so Newton was left mostly to himself in his early years. He did, nevertheless, begin to sail with his father at age eleven and entered naval service (against his will) at age eighteen. It was during his time in the English Navy that Newton was introduced to friends who would draw him into greater and greater decadence. By the time he was twenty-two, he was an immoral, debauched slave-trader who not only treated others cruelly, but who also suffered cruelty at the hands of others.
A Storm at Sea
But on March 21, 1748—a day Newton would commemorate every year after his conversion—God reached down to this sinful sailor in a dramatic way. While at sea, Newton was thrown into panic during a violent storm and began to to God for physical deliverance. He soon realized that he was unable to pray with faith because he was not reconciled to God. Happily, he was able to locate a Bible on board and spent the rest of the trip reading the Scripture and seeking the Lord.
This event did much to sober Newton and shake a good amount of outward immorality out of his life, but he was yet unconverted. He recognized the seriousness of his past sins, but was still unacquainted with the deep sinfulness of his heart and therefore relied upon his own efforts rather than faith in Christ to make progress in personal holiness. Several weeks later, however, Newton came to trust genuinely in Jesus for salvation.
From the Sea, to Land, to Pastoral Ministry
Six years after his conversion (1754), Newton suffered an epileptic seizure and was forced to retire from a life at sea. He replaced his work as a sailor by taking a job as a Surveyor of Tides in Liverpool. He also served actively in his church and studied rigorously, teaching himself Hebrew, Greek, and Christian theology.
In 1764, Newton accepted a call to a small parish in Olney, Buckinghamshire. He served this parish for nearly sixteen years and then took a pastorate at St. Mary’s Woolnoth in London. Newton was 81 years old when he finally stepped out of pulpit at St. Mary’s, having served faithfully at St. Mary’s for nearly twenty-six years.
Newton was also a faithful husband and father. He married Mary Catlett on February 1, 1750 and, though unable to have biological children, they adopted and raised two nieces. Newton died on December 21, 1807 at the age of eighty-two.
Newton the Great Letter-Writer
During his Christian life, and predominantly during his pastoral ministry, Newton devoted himself to letter-writing. Although this may seem like an insignificant biographical detail, Newton actually saw his letter-writing as a calling and stewardship from God. Early on, Newton dreamed of ways of he might be spiritually productive through a public ministry—in preaching and teaching. While not neglecting the importance of his pulpit ministry, soon into his first pastorate Newton sensed clearly that God had equipped him for usefulness in a private ministry—through personal correspondence. In a letter to a personal friend, Newton confessed, “I . . . had reckoned upon doing good by some of my other works than by my ‘Letters’ . . . but the Lord said, ‘You shall be most useful by them’; and I learned to say, ‘Thy will be done! Use me as thou pleases, only make me useful.’”
Newton’s pastoral correspondence is now preserved for our benefit in 1000 letters—500 written and published during his lifetime, and another 500 collected and published after his death. These letters are rich in biblical instruction and unparalleled in their pastoral insight. Most recently, Tony Reinke has carefully studied and categorized these letters in his book John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live if Christ, which I highly recommend.
Your Vital Private Ministry
I focus on this aspect of Newton’s life and ministry, not to pique our historical curiosity, but to draw out this one exhortation: we must recognize the worth of our private ministries. While Scripture places a high importance on the public ministry of the Word, it is equally clear on the value of the private ministry of the Word. Personal conversations, letters, emails, phone calls, and one-on-one discipleship meetings (to name only a few), are vital spheres of ministry in which we have the opportunity teach one another (Rom 15:14). Words rightly spoken can bring life and joy (Prov 15:23; 25:11) and personal discussions can lead a person into greater understanding of the truth (Acts 18:26) or to Christ for the first time (Acts 8:34-37).
You may not have a public ministry in which you regularly each the Bible to or exercise leadership over large group of people. You may serve faithfully, behind-the-scenes in the church’s ‘hidden places’ and have a few believers and unbelievers in your life to whom you minister the Word. You may write letters, take long walks with friends and talk about Christ and the Bible; you may spend time crafting substantive emails to brothers or sisters who are struggling with various theological issues, or lead a Bible study for a couple of unbelievers during your lunch hour. That’s glorious. Your private ministry is vital. Very few people will ever see it, but that’s alright, Jesus does, and he will one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21).
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