Thursday, December 21, 2017

The extraordinary Mr Newton

The extraordinary John Newton died all of 210 years ago today. At sea from the age of 11, he was pressed to work for the Navy, then on a slave ship before being virtually enslaved himself in West Africa. He was rescued, underwent a spiritual conversion, yet became a captain of slave ships. He turned tax collector, then lay preacher, and then evangelical curate. He proved a very popular pastor, friend to the poet William Cowper (with whom he wrote the hymn Amazing Grace) and to the leader of the slave abolition movement, William Wilberforce. Much of what we know about this remarkable man comes from his own hand, an autobiography and diaries.

Newton was born in 1725 in Wapping, London, the son of a shipmaster. His mother died when he was seven, and from the age of eleven he sailed on his father’s voyages. When his father retired, he, still a teenager, signed on with a merchant ship. Before long, he was pressed into the naval service, becoming a midshipman on HMS Harwich. He was caught trying to desert and was severely flogged. He transferred to the Pegasus, a slave ship heading for Africa, but was left in West Africa, in the hands of a slave dealer, and was treated no better than a slave himself. In 1748, he was rescued, and brought back to England, by a ship’s captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to look for him. On the journey home, the ship almost sank which led to Newton undergoing some kind of spiritual conversion, and thereafter living a far more sober life.

Back in Liverpool, Newton secured a position as first mate on the slave ship Brownlow bound for the West Indies. In 1750, he married his childhood sweetheart Mary Catlett, and they adopted two orphaned nieces. He went on to become captain on several slave ship voyages, only giving up in 1754 after suffering a stroke. Thereafter, he worked as tax collector in the Port of Liverpool, but at the same time serving as an evangelical lay minister. He first applied to be ordained in the Church of England in 1757, and to other denominations, but it was not until 1764 that he was finally accepted into the C of E, and took up the living of Olney, Buckinghamshire. He was supported by John Thornton, a wealthy merchant and evangelical philanthropist, and proved a popular curate, well known for his pastoral care. In 1767, the poet William Cowper moved to Olney, attended Newton’s church, and the two became friends. They collaborated on a volume of hymns, the most famous of which is known as Amazing Grace.

In 1779, Thornton invited Newton to take over as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, becoming one of only two evangelical Anglican priests in the city. He remained a popular churchman, friendly with evangelicals as well as Anglicans, and is known to have advised a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, who would become a leader of the abolition movement. In 1788, Newton published a pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, breaking a long-lived silence on the subject, in which he apologised abjectly for the part he had played many years earlier. Mary died in 1790, which led Newton to publishing Letters to a Wife. Newton, himself, died on 21 December 1807. Further information is readily available online at Wikipedia, The Abolition Project, The Church Society, or Banner of Truth.

Newton kept a diary for much of his life, and although it was not published (as far as I can tell) until the 1960s, substantial extracts can be found in a biography put together in the 19th century by Rev Josiah Bull and published by The Religious Tract Society: John Newton of Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth: An Autobiography and Narrative compiled chiefly from his diary and other unpublished documents. This is freely available online at Internet Archive. In 1962, Epworth Press issued The Journal of a Slave Trader 1750-1754 edited by Bernard Martin and Mark Spurrell. Some pages from the manuscript of Newton’s journal (taken from The Slave Trade and Its Abolition by John Langdon-Davies) can be view online at Getty Images.

Transcribed extracts from Newton’s journals can also be found on two contrasting websites: The International Slavery Museum and The John Newton Project (which advertises is objective as ‘the transformation of society through faith in Jesus Christ, using the life and works of John Newton as one great example). However, neither website (as far as I can ascertain) give any clue as to the source for their extracts, nor can I find any indication as to where the original manuscript diaries might be held. The John Newton Project says there are ‘several diaries’ covering the period 1751 to 1805, but not where they are or how it, the Project, has access to them.

The following extracts have been taken from the 19th century Autobiography, the International Slavery Museum website, and The John Newton Project.

Extracts from An Autobiography and Narrative:

22 December 1751
‘I dedicate unto thee, most blessed God, this clean, unsullied book; and at the same time renew my tender of a foul, blotted, corrupt heart. Be pleased, O Lord, to assist me with the influences of Thy Spirit to fill the one in a manner agreeable to Thy will, and by Thy all-sufficient grace to overpower and erase the ill impressions sin and the world have from time to time made in the other, so that both my public converse and retired meditation may testify that I am indeed thy servant, redeemed, renewed, and accepted in the sufferings, merit, and mediation of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, honour, and dominion, world without end. Amen.’

21 November 1753
‘As it has pleased God already to raise me above dependence, and to give me more than I could have presumed to ask, not only food and raiment, but a great variety of conveniences and comforts, insomuch that I number myself amongst the most happy on earth, I cannot but think it incumbent upon me to bestow a part of my superfluities towards relieving those who are struggling under a want of necessaries. I have not come to a full determination of the quota I intend to set apart for this purpose. I will guard against being too sparing, leaving myself, however, at liberty to suspend or leave it on such an unavoidable emergency as my conscience shall allow, and, on the other hand, looking upon it to be my duty to enlarge it, if Providence sees fit to bless me beyond my present expectations; for I cannot think I have a right to gratify myself in mere indulgences any further than as I shall purchase it by charitable actions and imparting occasionally to those who have need.’

Extracts from the International Slavery Museum website:

26 May 1754
‘. . . ln the evening, by the favour of Providence, discovered a conspiracy among the men slaves to rise upon us, but a few hours before it was to have been executed. A young man, who has been the whole voyage out of irons, first on account of a large ulcer, and since for his seeming good behaviour, gave them a large marline spike down the gratings, but was happily seen by one of the people. They had it in possession about an hour before I made search for it, in which time they made such good dispatch (being an instrument that made no noise) that this morning I've found near 20 of them had broke their irons. Are at work securing them.’

27 May 1754
‘. . . A hard tornado came on so quick that had hardly time to take in a small sail; blew extream hard for 3 hours with heavy rain. . . At noon little wind. . . ln the afternoon secured all the men's irons again and punished 6 of the ringleaders of the insurrection.’

28 May 1754
‘. . . Secured the after bulkhead of the men's room, for they had started almost every stantient. Their plot was exceedingly well laid, and had they been let alone an hour longer, must have occasioned us a good deal of trouble and damage. l have reason to be thankful they did not make attempts upon the coast when we had often 7 or 8 of our best men out of the ship at a time and the rest busy. They still look very gloomy and sullen and have doubtless mischief in their heads if they could find every opportunity to vent it. But I hope (by the Divine Assistance) we are fully able to overawe them now. . .’

Extracts from An Autobiography and Narrative:

14 February 1772
‘Went to meet the little society at M. Mole’s. The Lord has been pleased to awaken several young persons of late, and to incline their hearts to meet together.’

10 May 1772
‘Preached at Collingtree. Had a large congregation. The church crowded, the chancel and belfry nearly full. My dear and Mr. Cowper went with me.’

31 December 1772
‘The comforts, the trials of another year finished, and can be repeated no more. It has been to me a year of great mercy and great sinfulness. Many proofs of the Lord’s goodness, and of the evil of my own heart has it afforded. [Referring to the fact that he had come to the end of the second volume of his diary] It is now more than sixteen years since I began to write in this book. How many scenes have I passed through in that time, - by what a way has the Lord led me! - what wonders has He shown me! My book is now nearly full, and I shall provide another for the next year. O Lord, accept my praise for all that is past. Enable me to trust Thee for all that is to come, and give a blessing to all who may read these records of Thy goodness and my own vileness. Amen and Amen.’

Extracts from The John Newton Project:

21 January 1773
‘Our trial still continues, and I think increases. The Lord knows how and when to moderate it. We all find it a sharp trial for faith and patience. How mysterious are the Lord’s ways, but we are sure all that he does is right and good. Met the children. In the afternoon sent Miss T and A to Newport. Preached in the evening and was favoured with liberty. Acts 13:17’

22 January 1773
‘My dear friend [Mr Cowper] still walks in darkness. I can hardly conceive that anyone in a state of grace and favour with God, can be in greater distress. And yet no-one walked more closely with him, or was more simply devoted to him in all things. Thus as in the case of Job he shows his right to deal as he wills with his own, he knows how to make up for all, to bring light out of darkness and real good out of seeming evil. When we presume to say, Why hast thou done this? He answers in his word, Be still and know that I am God.’

23 January 1773
‘Much like yesterday. Our great trial still continues. Writing at leisure times. Mr Cooper of Loxley came in the evening.’

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