John Newton's Letters
Five letters to a Christian friend
January 16, 1775.
I can sympathize with you in your troubles—yet, knowing the nature of our calling, that, by an unalterable appointment, the way to the kingdom lies through many tribulations, I ought to rejoice, rather than otherwise, that to you it is given, not only to believe—but also to suffer. If you escaped these things, whereof all the Lord's children are partakers, might not you question your adoption into his family? How could the power of grace be manifest, either to you, in you, or by you, without afflictions? How could the corruptions and devastations of the heart be checked, without a cross? How could you acquire a tenderness and skill in speaking to those who are weary, without a taste of such trials as they also meet with? You would only be a hearsay witness to the truth, power, and sweetness of the precious promises, unless you have been in such a situation as to need them, and to find their suitableness and sufficiency.
The Lord has given you a good desire to serve him in the Gospel, and he is now training you for that service. Many things, yes, the most important things, belonging to the Gospel ministry, are not to be learned by books and study—but by painful experience. You must expect a variety of difficult trials—but two things he has promised you—that you shall not be tried above what he will enable you to bear, and that all shall work together for your good!
Were we to acquire no other knowledge of the Christian warfare, than what we could derive from cool and undisturbed book study, instead of coming forth as able ministers of the New Testament, and competently acquainted with the with the devices, the deep-laid devices and stratagems of Satan—we would prove to be worthless. But the Lord will take better care of those whom He loves and designs to honor. He will try, and permit them to be tried, in various ways. He will make them feel much affliction in themselves, that they may know how to feel much for others.
This painful discipline is necessary to enable us to take the field in a public capacity with courage, wisdom, and success, that we may lead and animate others in the fight! It is equally necessary for our own sakes, that we may obtain and preserve the grace of humility, which He has taught you to set a high value upon. Indeed, we cannot value it too highly; for we can be neither comfortable, safe, nor habitually useful, without sincere humility! The root of pride lies deep in our fallen nature, and, where the Lord has given great abilities—pride would grow apace, if He did not mercifully watch over us, and suit His dealings with us, to keep it down.
Therefore I trust He will make you willing to endure hardships, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. May He enable you to behold Him with faith holding out the prize, and saying to you, "Fear none of those things that you shall suffer! Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life!"
We sail upon a turbulent and tumultuous sea—but we are embarked on a good vessel, and in a good cause. We have an infallible and almighty Pilot, who has the winds and weather at his command, and can silence the storm into a calm with a word, whenever he pleases. We may be persecuted—but we shall not be forsaken; we may be cast down—but we cannot be destroyed. Many will molest us that we may fall—but the Lord will uphold us!
I am sorry to find you are quite alone at Cambridge; for I hoped there would be a succession of serious students to supply the place of those who are transplanted to shine as lights in the world. Yet you are not alone; for the Lord is with you, the best counselor and the best friend! There is a strange backwardness in us (at least in me) fully to improve that gracious intimacy to which he invites us. Alas! that we so easily wander from the fountain of life—to hew out broken cisterns for ourselves; and that we seem more attached to a few drops of his grace in our fellow-creatures, than to the fullness of grace that is in himself! I think nothing gives me a more striking sense of my depravity, than my perverseness and folly in this respect. Yet he bears with me, and does me good continually.
It gave me particular pleasure to hear that the Lord helped you through your difficulties, and succeeded your desires. And I have sympathized with you in the complaints you make of a dark and mournful frame of spirit afterwards. But is not this, upon the whole, right and beneficial, that, if the Lord is pleased at one time to strengthen us remarkably in answer to prayer—that he should leave us at another time, so far as to give us a real sensibility that we were supported by his power, and not our own?
Besides, as you feel a danger of being elated by the respect paid to you, was it not a merciful and seasonable dispensation which made you feel your own weakness, to prevent your being exalted above measure? The Lord, by withdrawing his smiles from you, reminded you that the smiles of men are of little value, otherwise perhaps you might have esteemed them too highly. Indeed, you pastors that know the Lord, are singular instances of the power of his grace; for (like the young men in Daniel 3.) you live in the very midst of the fire!
Your mathematical studies in particular have such a tendency to engross and fix the mind to the contemplation of cold and uninteresting truth, and you are surrounded with so much intoxicating applause if you succeed in your researches, that for a soul to be kept humble and alive in such a situation, is such a proof of the Lord's presence and power—as Moses had when he saw the bush unconsummated in the midst of the flames! I believe I had naturally a turn for the mathematics myself, and dabbled in them a little way; and though I did not go far, my head, sleeping and waking, was stuffed with diagrams and calculations. Everything I looked at that exhibited either a right line or a curve, set my wits a wool-gathering. What then must have been the case—had I proceeded to the study of speculative geometry? I bought my namesake's geometry book—but I have reason to be thankful that I left it as I found it, a sealed book, and that the bent of my mind was drawn to something of more real importance before I understood it. I say not this to discourage you in your pursuits. they lie in your line and path of duty; in mine they did not.
As to your academics, I am glad that the Lord enables you to show those among whom you live, that the knowledge of his Gospel does not despoil you either of diligence or acumen. However, as I said, you need a double guard of grace, to preserve you from being either puffed up or deadened by those things, which, to preserve your rank and character in the University while you remain there, are, if taken in the aggregate, little better than splendid trifles!
If my poor people could form the least conception of what the learned at Cambridge chiefly admire in each other, and what is the intrinsic reward of all their toil, they would say, "What a foolish waste of time!" How gladly would some of them, if such mathematical and metaphysical lumber could by any means get into their heads, how gladly would they desire to get it out again! How many perplexities are they freed from, by their happy ignorance, which often pester those to their lives' end—who have had their natural proneness to vain reasoning sharpened by academic studies!
May 18, 1776.
Though I wished to hear from you sooner, I put a candid interpretation upon your silence—but felt no disposition to anger. Let our correspondence be free from fetters. Write when you please, and when you can. I will do the like. Apologies may be spared on both sides. I am not a very punctual correspondent myself, having so many letters to write, and therefore have no right to stand upon punctilios with you.
I sympathize with you in your sorrow for your friend's death. Such things are very distressing! But such a case might have been our own. Let us pray for grace to be thankful for ourselves, and submit everything in humble silence to the sovereign Lord—who has a right to do as He pleases with His own.
We feel and grieve for any deaths in our own little circles; but O, the dreadful mischief of sin! Human death is as frequent as the hours, the minutes, perhaps the moments of every day. And though we may be impacted by but one death in a million—the souls of all others have an equal capacity for endless happiness or misery!
I congratulate you upon your admission into the ministry, and pray God to favor you with a single eye to his glory, and a fresh anointing of his Holy Spirit, that you may come forth as a scribe well instructed in the mysteries of his kingdom, and that his Word in your mouth may abundantly prosper.
I truly pity those who rise early and study late, and eat the bread of worry, with no higher prize and prospect in view—than the obtaining of academic honors! Such pursuits will before long appear (as they really are) as vain as the foolish games of children! May the Lord impress them with a noble ambition of living to and for him. If these scholars, who are laboring for pebbles under the semblance of goodly pearls, had a discovery of the Pearl of great price, how quickly and gladly would they lay down their admired attainments, and become fools—that they might be truly wise!
Friend, what a snare have you escaped! You would have been nothing but a scholar—had not God visited your heart and enlightened you by His grace! Now I trust you account your former academic gains, but loss—compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus. What you have attained in the way of learning, will be useful to you—if sanctified, and chiefly so by the knowledge which you have of its insufficiency to any valuable purpose in the great concerns of life—knowing God and walking with Him!
I am pleased with your fears lest you should not be understood in your preaching. Indeed, there is a danger of it. It is not easy for people of quick minds—duly to conceive how amazingly ignorant and slow of apprehension, the bulk of our congregations generally are. When our own ideas are clear, and our expressions proper—we are ready to think we have sufficiently explained ourselves; and yet, perhaps, nine out of ten (especially of those who are destitute of spiritual light) know little more of what we say—than if we were speaking Greek!
A degree of this inconvenience is always inseparable from written sermons. They cast our thoughts into a style, which, though familiar to ourselves, is too remote from common conversation to be comprehended by narrow capacities of our hearers; which is one chief reason of the preference I give to extemporary preaching. When we read to the people, they think themselves less concerned in what is offered—than when we speak to them point-blank.
It seems a good rule, which I have met with somewhere, and which perhaps I have mentioned to you—to fix our eyes upon some one of the congregation whom we judge of the least mental capacity. If we can make him understand, we may hope to be understood by the rest of our hearers.
Let those who seek to be admired for the exactness of their compositions, enjoy the poor reward they aim at. it is best for Gospel preachers to speak plain language. If we thus singly aim at the glory of our Master and the good of souls—we may hope for the accompanying power of his Spirit, which will give our discourses a weight and energy, that the golden-mouthed Demosthenes had no conception of!
I can give you no information of a pastorate in a better situation. But either the Lord will provide you one, or I trust he will give you usefulness, and fullness and a competency of health and spirits where you are. He who caused Daniel to thrive upon vegetables and water, can make you strong and cheerful even in your bad situation—if he sees that best for you. All things obey him, and you need not fear but he will enable you for whatever service he has appointed you to perform!
This letter has been a week in hand—many interruptions from without, and indispositions within. I seem to while away my life, and shall be glad to be saved upon the footing of the thief upon the cross, without any hope or plea—but the power and grace of Jesus, who has said, I will in nowise cast out! Adieu.
Sept. 10, 1777.
I was glad to hear from you at last, not being willing to think myself forgotten. It seems, by your account, that you are far from well—but I hope you are as well as you ought to be—that is, as well as the Lord sees it good for you to be. I say, I hope so—for I am not sure that the length and vehemence of your sermons, which you tell me astonish many people, may not be rather improper and imprudent, considering the weakness of your constitution; at least, if this expression of yours is justly expounded by a report which has reached me, that the length of your sermons is frequently two hours, and the vehemence of your voice so great that you may be heard far beyond the church-walls.
I would be unwilling to dampen your zeal—but I feel unwilling likewise, that by excessive, unnecessary exertions, that you should wear away very soon, and preclude your own usefulness! This concern is so much upon my mind, that I begin with it, though it makes me skip over the former part of your letter—but when I have relieved myself upon this point, I can easily skip back again.
I am perhaps the more ready to credit the report, because I know that the spirits of some high-strung people are highly volatile. I consider you as mounted upon a fiery steed, and provided you use due management and circumspection, you travel more pleasantly than we plodding folks upon our sober, stolid horses—but then, if instead of pulling the rein you plunge in the spurs, and add wings to the wind—I cannot but be in pain for the consequences. Permit me to remind you of an old adage—the end of speaking is to be heard; and if the person farthest from the preacher can hear, he speaks loud enough.
Upon some occasions, a few sentences of a discourse may be enforced with a voice still more elevated—but to be uncommonly loud from beginning to end—is hurtful to the speaker, and in no way useful to the hearer. It is a fault which many inadvertently give into at first, and which many have repented of too late—when the harmful practice has rendered it habitual, it is not easily corrected. I know some think that preaching very loudly—and preaching with power—are synonymous expressions. But your judgment is too good to fall in with that false sentiment.
There is a quotation from Homer, where he describes the eloquence of Nestor, and compares it, not to a thunderstorm or hurricane—but to a fall of snow, which, though pressing, insinuating, and penetrating, is soft and gentle. I think the simile is beautiful and expressive.
Secondly (as we say), as to long preaching. There is an old-fashioned instrument called an hour-glass, which in days of yore, before clocks and watches abounded, used to be the measure of many a good sermon, and I think it a tolerable stint. I cannot wind up my ends to my own satisfaction in a much shorter time, nor am I pleased with myself if I greatly exceed it.
If an angel was to preach for two hours—unless his hearers were angels likewise—the greater part of them wish that he had preached for a much shorter time! It is a shame it should be so—but so it is! Partly through the weakness and partly through the wickedness of the flesh—we can seldom stretch our attention to spiritual things for two hours together without cracking it, and hurting its spring! When weariness begins—edification ends! It is better to feed our people like chickens—a little and often—than to cram them like turkeys, until they cannot hold one more mouthful!
Besides, overlong sermons break in upon family concerns, and often call off the thoughts from the sermon—to the pudding at home, which is in danger of being over-boiled! Long sermons leave likewise but little time for secret or family religion, which are both very good in their place, and are entitled to a share of each Sunday.
Upon the preacher they must have a bad effect, and tend to wear him down before his time. I have known some, by over preaching at first, have been constrained to sit still and do little or nothing for months or years afterwards. I recommend you to this wise advice: Set out at such a pace—that you may hold out to your journey's end.
Now, if Fame with her hundred mouths has brought me a false report of you, and you are not guilty of preaching either too long or too loud, still I am not willing my remonstrance may go for nothing. I desire you to accept it, and thank me for it as a proof of my love to you, and likewise of the sincerity of my friendship; for if I had wished to flatter you—I could easily have written on another subject.
I have one more report to trouble you with, because it troubles me; and therefore you must bear a part of my burden. Assure me it is false, and I will send you one of the handsomest letters I can devise by way of thanks. It is reported, (but I will not believe it until you say I must), that you stand upon your tiptoes, upon the point of being whirled out of our vortex, and hurried away, comet-like, into the regions of eccentricity! In plain English—that you have a hankering to be an itinerant. But to be serious—for it is a serious subject; let me beg you to deliberate well, and to pray earnestly before you take this step. Be afraid of acting in your own spirit, or under a wrong impression, however honestly you intend—you may be mistaken. The Lord has given you a little charge; be faithful in it, and in his good time he will advance you to a greater—but let his providence evidently open the door to you, and be afraid of moving one step before the cloud and pillar.
I have had my warm fits and desires of this sort in my time—but I have reason to be thankful that I was held in with a strong hand. I wish there were more itinerant preachers. If a man has grace and zeal, and but limited abilities, let him go and diffuse the substance of a dozen sermons over as many counties. But you have natural and acquired abilities, which qualify you for the more difficult, and, in my judgment, not less important, station of a church minister. I wish you to be a burning, shining, steady light. You may perhaps have less popularity; that is, you will be less exposed to the workings of self and the snares of Satan, if you stay with us—but I think you may live in the full exercise of your gifts and graces, be more consistent with your voluntary engagements, and have more peace of mind, and humble fellowship with God—in watching over a flock which he has committed to you, than, by forsaking them, to wander up and down the earth without a determined scope.
If you have not actually passed the point of no return concerning going into an itinerant ministry—if there is yet room for deliberation, I once more entreat you to pause and consider. In many respects I ought to be willing to learn from you—but in one point I have a little advantage of you. I am some years older, both in life and in experience; and in this difference of time perhaps I have learned something more of the heart, the world, and the devices of Satan, than you have had opportunity for. I hope I would not dampen your zeal—but I will pray the Lord to direct it into the best channel for permanent usefulness. I say permanent. I doubt not that you would be useful in the itinerant ministry—but I more and more observe great inconveniences follow in that way. Where you make a gathering of people, others will follow you; and if they all possessed your spirit, and had your unselfish views, it might be well. But, generally, an able preacher only so far awakens people to a desire to hear, as exposes them to the incursions of various winds of doctrine, and the attempts of injudicious pretenders, who will resemble you in nothing but your eagerness to post from place to place. From such measures, in time, proceed errors, parties, contentions, offenses, enthusiasms, spiritual pride, and a noisy ostentatious form of godliness—but little of that power and life of faith which shows itself by humility, meekness, and love.
A parochial minister, who lives among his people, who sees and converses with them frequently, and exemplifies his doctrine in their view by his practice, having knowledge of their spiritual states, trials, growth, and dangers—suits himself to their various states, and, by the blessing of God, builds them up, and brings them forward in faith and holiness. He is instrumental in forming their experience; he leads them to a solid, orderly, Scriptural knowledge of Divine things. If his name is not in so many mouths as that of the itinerant—it is upon the hearts of the people of his charge. He lives with them as a father with his children. His steady consistent behavior silences in some measure the clamors of his enemies; and the Lord opens him doors of occasional usefulness in many places.
I now wish I had taken larger paper, for I have not room for all I would say. I have no end to serve. I am of no party. I wish well to itinerants who love and preach the Gospel. I am content that they should labor that way, who have not talents nor gifts to support the character, and fill up the office of a parochial minister. But I think you are qualified for more important service. We are hasty, like children—but God often appoints us a waiting time. Perhaps it requires as much or more grace to wait—than to be active; for it is more trying to SELF. After all, whatever course you take, I shall love you, pray for you, and be glad to see you.