John Newton: From the Editor — New life-and a “new” magazine

EVERYBODY HAS had this thought at some point: I've wasted too much time already—it’s too late for me to use the gifts God has given me to the full. Though John Newton’s mother had taught him Christian faith as a boy, he repudiated it as a teen and spent his young adult years in “riotous living,” destroying the faith of others with his arguments and example.

Then God got hold of him and began, albeit gradually, to him his heart back to Him. This was amazing enough to Newton. But more amazing still was the realization that, far from disinheriting him as a prodigal, his Lord now had work for him to do. Like Paul before him, he who had once persecuted Christ would now become his ambassador.

From his thirty-ninth year on, Newton preached the gospel at every opportunity; visited and prayed with distraught parishioners; wrote wise letters of spiritual counsel; and composed and published hymns resplendent with gratitude and praise to God. Through a long, full life of pastoral ministry, his wasted years were more than redeemed.

Blaspheming, ribald scoffer at religion. self-sacrificial, eloquent minister of the gospel. Both were one and the same person. The difference was conversion—and the “new life” that comes with it. Doing this issue has been a reminder to me that when Jesus gets hold of a person—at no matter what age—he does wonderful things with the years that follow. The new life he brings is abundant—more than we can ask or imagine.

A stammering start

As I got to know John Newton, I felt I was in the presence of a quintessential pastor. He had known the misery of sin at close hand and delighted in bringing what the Puritans termed “soul cure” to all around him. That he strove for seven years to enter a church ministry that didn’t seem to want him suggests how deeply rooted this motive was.

Newton’s first preaching experiences didn’t bode well-a less committed man might well have given up. Biographer Bruce Hindmarsh tells the story: “At the end of September 1758 Newton visited Yorkshire, then enjoying a time of religious revival. A friend there, John Edwards, persuaded him to make his first attempt at public preaching to Edwards’s congregation at White Chapel in Leeds. Newton decided to speak without prepared notes—and found himself becoming increasingly nervous, until in the middle of his sermon he came to a speechless stop. To his intense embarrassment Edwards had to come into the pulpit to finish the discourse.”

His second attempt was hardly more auspicious. Again, Hindmarsh tells it well: “On his Yorkshire joumeys in 1760 Newton continued to have opportunities to test and develop his gifts for ministry. In April he sought to make amends for his previous embarrassment in the pulpit by sticking closely to a prepared text when invited again to preach. But he found that he simply erred in the opposite extreme and appeared fixed like a statue, as he huddled over his notes like a boy learning to read, barely looking up until he was finished.”

It’s hard not to like this brash, purposeful, big-hearted man, who knew how much he owed to God, and was willing to make himself vulnerable and allow himself to be embarrassed in the quest to pay back some small part of that debt.

The story of this ex-slave captain who experienced “more than he could ask or imagine” is an appropriate one for this, our first issue under the new name of Christian History and Biography.As you can see, we have set out to bring you more of what you have enjoyed in Christian History over the years, with new features added to spice the pot. We hope you will find the resulting meal a full, varied, and satisfying one. Please let us know what you think!

Newton’s is a story we would not have been able to tell nearly so well without the help of a special colleague—this issue’s consulting editor, D. Bruce Hiridmarsh. Bruce, who is James Houston Associate Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada, has written what will stand for some time as the definitive biography of Newton, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford, 1996). The book is not only a revealing account of Newton’s life, but also an excellent introduction to the dynamic landscape of evangelicalism in the years between John Wesley and William Wilberforce.

Bruce’s guiding hand has made this a better issue, at every level, from story ideas to authors’ research to fact-checking and revision.

We have also benefited from the knowledge and resourcefulness of Marylynn Rouse, the researcher behind a project based at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, to publish Newton’s complete works.

Now we hope you will enjoy hearing Newton’s story, and the other stories here, as much as we did preparing them. 

By the Editor

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #81 in 2004]

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