This lovely book is not a version of the game, ‘Who would you most like to meet from the past?’ That is always a slightly meaningless matter for a Christian—for the great ones of the past whom we would most like to meet are in fact waiting to meet us in heaven!
No, the purpose of this book is not ‘to meet John Newton’ (lovely as that thought is) but to sit under his ministry, to enjoy today what many enjoyed yesterday, to enter into his benefit.
I have had the privilege of ‘getting there first’, for I have had the use of much of the material in this book ahead of publication, and have made it my daily companion. I write, therefore, not, so to speak, in a spirit of hope, but by way of testimony. Not ‘Would you like to meet John Newton?’ but ‘Here is John Newton to meet you, to speak, teach and minister.’ Come, enjoy and profit!
Newton’s whole ministry bore the marks so evident in his lovely hymns: it was consistently biblical (to share the Word of God), spiritual (to promote walking with God), simple (to make biblical truth and principles plain), and practical (to inculcate personal holiness and sound relationships in church and society). In this collection every day bears these marks, so useful to every believer, so instructive for those called to minister. Newton was a rich and princely teacher, a sensitive and caring pastor, and a straight, outspoken guide.
Not only all this, but in Marylynn Rouse Newton has found a true disciple, and a skilled publicist. By enormous diligence, and self-sacrificing application, she has made herself a leading ‘Newton expert’, and in this sensitive compilation all that expertise is put at our disposal.
Please God, he has determined to bless this work, just as surely as he will use it to bless every individual reader!
April 2006 AD
In 1758 John Newton was working as Surveyor of Tides in Liverpool docks, from an office close to the site of this World Heritage City’s Albert Docks. At the prompting of friends he began to pray about entering the ministry to ‘honestly and plainly declare the truths of the gospel’.
He determined to preach Christ crucified, ‘the great essential points of the glories of his person and offices, his wonderful love and condescension, his power, faithfulness and readiness to save, the grandeur of his works, the perfection of his example, his life, passion, death and resurrection’, which he considered, ‘undoubtedly the most pleasant set of topics, so the most useful and effectual, to rouse a hatred against sin, to feed the springs of grace into the heart, to animate and to furnish every believer for his spiritual warfare’.
Like Jonah, Newton had previously run away from the Lord and it had taken a tremendous storm at sea in 1748 to humble him, convict him of his defiance and stir him up to cry out to God for mercy. He would later write, ‘How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed’. For the rest of his life he set aside the anniversary of that day of his conversion, 21 March, for thanksgiving and prayer (see this date in these readings).
When Newton finally entered the ministry in 1764 through the kindness of Lord Dartmouth (later Britain’s Colonial Secretary), it was as curate-in-charge of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Olney. For sixteen years he lived amongst the lace-making and farming cottagers, learning from their simple lifestyle, applying scriptural truths in everyday terms and gaining valuable pastoral experience.
He began preparing his sermons in a series of notebooks. Hannah Wilberforce, the aunt of William Wilberforce, MP, was one of Newton’s many friends who begged to borrow his notebooks. Fortunately for us, many of these notebooks are still in existence. None of them has ever been published before, so after a gap of more than 200 years, we may now join this privileged group of friends and ‘borrow’ his sermon notebooks.
However, we have an advantage over his contemporaries, for we can draw on his unpublished diaries and correspondence to gain a little extra insight into some of the circumstances surrounding these sermons. From his diary, for instance, we learn that Amazing Grace was almost certainly written for New Year’s Day 1773 (see 1 January) and Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion city of our God, for Easter Day 1775 (the series he was preaching from 2 Samuel 23:5 at the time certainly reflects similar thoughts—see 1 May).
Sometimes we gain more background information than mere dates. For instance, eager to learn from his Creator’s handiwork, Newton loved to glean what he could of the signature of God in it. Observing an eclipse of the moon at Olney on 30 July 1776, he recorded in his diary: ‘I thought my Lord, of thine eclipse. The horrible darkness which overwhelmed thy mind when thou saidst, Why hast thou forsaken me? Ah, sin was the cause—my sin.’ He expressed these thoughts in a hymn, preached from it at the Great House (Lord Dartmouth’s property) on Sunday evening, and sent a copy to his friend and sponsor John Thornton.
While many with unmeaning eye
Fain would my thankful heart and lips
Gaze on thy works in vain;
Unite in praise to thee;
Assist me, LORD, that I may try
And meditate on thy eclipse,
Instruction to obtain.
In sad Gethsemane.
Newton’s diaries, journals, hymns and correspondence are the source of meditations to accompany the sermon extracts, along with some Scripture verses. The meditations include 124 of his own hymns from Olney Hymns, published in 1779 during his last year at Olney. Extracts from his journal of children’s meetings illustrate sermon points, together with portions of his correspondence with William Wilberforce, John Thornton (Wilberforce’s uncle and a Director of the Bank of England), John Ryland (later President of Bristol Baptist College) and the Coffin family in Linkenhorne, Cornwall.
The sermon extracts in this book draw on Newton’s previously unpublished notes for 105 sermons. Some of his original notes from which he later published fifty sermons based on the texts in Handel’s Messiah are in the main sections (see for example 8 June). So too we find the sermon notes for How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (see 8 April), for an address to the Bible Society (now the Naval, Military and Air Force Bible Society—see 22 September) and for the funeral service of his ‘right hand’, Betty Abraham, an Olney watchmaker’s wife, together with a hymn based on the last words she spoke, from Lamentations 3:24, The Lord is my portion (see 13 February).
Most of the sermons were preached in Olney between 1764 and 1780 and come from sermon notebooks owned by the Cowper & Newton Museum. Occasionally the sermons or hymns are dated (forty-one sermons and twenty-three hymns have been identified). A few of the sermons were preached in London, for Newton went on to become the rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the heart of the city’s ‘square mile’. His congregations were drawn from all denominations, including Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Moravians and Quakers. One sermon in these daily readings was written to be preached as the annual sermon before his parishioner, the Lord Mayor of London (see 25 March).
While the events surrounding the sermons and meditations add interest, by far the greatest advantage of these readings comes from the deeply biblical approach which Newton maintained from that resolution formed in 1758 on the banks of the Mersey to ‘honestly and plainly declare the truths of the gospel’.
We may consider ourselves feasting alongside Newton’s breakfast party companions in London or at his Tuesday evening open-house sessions for ‘Parsons, Parsonets, and Parsonettas’—the down-and-outs, like the penniless Claudius Buchanan (who became Newton’s curate and subsequently Vice-Provost of Fort William in Bengal), the MPs and city bankers, such as William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton, female authors such as Hannah More (converted through reading Newton’s letters, published as Cardiphonia), pioneer missionaries such as William Carey (en route to India), Richard Johnson (chaplain of the first fleet to Australia), and many more.
Although each page is ‘self-contained’, a special feature of these daily readings is the facility to follow through Newton’s thinking in a series, for instance the selections from his series on the Transfiguration, where he comes at a passage from different angles with new insights at each attempt.
Finally, in the words of John Newton, which seem to apply suitably to this selection of his readings,
And with these views, I would attempt to assist your meditations on it. I may say as the woman of Samaria, the well is deep [John 4:11].… Here, I think, if anywhere, we have cause to pray with the psalmist, Open thou my eyes, that I may see the great things of thy law [Psalm 119:18]. May this be the desire of all our hearts, and may the Lord afford a gracious answer.
The John Newton Project
Stratford on Avon