John Newton's Letters
Five Letters to a young lady
My dear Miss,
The Lord brought us home in peace. My visit to **** was agreeable, and I shall often think of it with pleasure; though the deadness and dryness of my own spirit, a good part of the time I was there, proved a considerable abatement. I am eager enough to converse with the Lord's people—when at the same time I am backward and indisposed to communion with the Lord himself!
The two evils charged upon Israel of old—a proneness to forsake the fountain of living waters, and to trust to broken cisterns (which can do me no good unless he supplies them), run through the whole of my experience abroad and at home. A few drops of grace in my fellow-worms endear them to me exceedingly. If I expect to see any Christian friends, I count the hours until we meet. I promise myself great benefit—but if the Lord withdraws his influence—the best of them prove to me but clouds without water.
It was not, however, wholly so with me all the time I stayed with my friends—but I am slow in learning to depend upon the Lord alone. I have been at this lesson many a long year—but am so poor and dull a scholar, that I have not yet made any tolerable progress in it.
I received some instruction where I little expected it, at Mr. Cox's Museum. The efforts of his ingenuity amazed me—while at the same time I was struck with their insignificance. His fine things were curious beyond all I had any idea of; and yet what are they better than toys and amusements, suited to the taste of children! And notwithstanding the variety of their motions, they were all destitute of life. There is unspeakably more wisdom and skill in the mechanism of a butterfly or a bee which flies unnoticed in the fields—than in all his fancy apparatus put together! But the works of God are disregarded, while the feeble imitations of them which men can produce gain universal applause!
If you and I could make self-moving lions and elephants, what would it profit us? Blessed be God, that he has given us some glimpses of his wisdom and love! by which our hearts, more hard and lifeless by nature than the stones in the street—are constrained and enabled to move upwards, and to seek after the Lord. He has given us in his Word a greater treasure than all that we ever beheld with our eyes, and a hope which shall flourish when the earth and all its works shall be burnt up! What will all the fine things of men's devising be worth in that day?
I think the passage you refer to in Mr. **** justly exceptionable. His intention is good, and the mistake he would censure very dangerous—but he might have explained himself more clearly. I apprehend he and you do not mean the same thing by being in the dark. It is not an uncomfortable—but a careless frame, which he would censure. Those who walk in darkness and see no light, and yet are exhorted to stay themselves upon God, (Isaiah 1:10), are said to hearken to the voice of his servant. Though they cannot see the Lord, they are seeking and mourning after him, and waiting in the use of means, and warring against sin. Mr. **** had another set of people in view, who trust in the notions of Gospel truth, or some past convictions and comforts; though at present they give no evidence of spiritual desires—but are worldly in their spirit and conversation. They talk of trusting in the Lord; account it a weakness to doubt of their state, and think all is well, because they profess to believe the doctrines of grace. In a word, it is the darkness of sin and sloth, not the occasional darkness of an exercised soul, against which his observation is pointed. Or if, indeed, he meant more than this, we are not obliged to believe him.
Remember your exalted privilege—you have the Bible in your hands, and are not bound to follow books or preachers any farther than what they teach agrees with the Oracles of Truth. We have great reason to be thankful for the instructions and writings of spiritual men—but they are all fallible—even as ourselves. One is our master, even Christ—what he says, we are to receive implicitly—but we do not owe implicit subjection to the best of our fellow-creatures. The Bereans were commended because they would not implicitly believe even the Apostle Paul—but searched the Scriptures to see whether the things which he taught were true. May the Lord give us a spirit of humility and discernment in all things.
May 4, 1773.
My dear Miss,
Methinks it is high time to ask you how you do, to thank you for your last letter, and to let you know, that though necessity makes me slack in writing—yet I can and do often think of you. My silence has been sometimes owing to lack of spare time; and sometimes when I could have found leisure, my harp has been out of tune, and I had no heart to write. Perhaps you are ready to infer, by my sitting down to write at last, that my harp is now well tuned, and I have something extraordinary to offer—beware of thinking so, lest you should be sadly disappointed. Should I make myself the subject, I could give you at present but a mournful ditty.
I suppose you have heard I have been ill—through mercy, I am now well. But indeed I must farther tell you, that when I was sick—I was well! And since the Lord has removed my illness—I have been much worse. My illness was far from violent in itself, and was greatly sweetened by a calm submissive frame the Lord gave me under it. My heart seemed more alive to him then than it has done since my cough, fever, and deafness have been removed.
Shall I tell you another bit of a riddle? That, notwithstanding the many spiritual fluctuations which I pass through—I am always the same! This is the very truth: "In me, that is, in my flesh—dwells no good thing!"
So that if sometimes my spirit is in a measure humble, lively and holy—it is not that I have grown better than I was—but the Lord is pleased to put forth His gracious power in my weakness!
And when my heart is dry and stupid, when I can find no pleasure in waiting upon God—it is not because I am worse than I was before—but only because the Lord sees it best that I should feel—what a poor creature I am.
My heart was once like a dungeon, beyond the reach of the sun, and always dark. Yet the Lord by His grace has been pleased to make this dungeon into a room, by putting windows in it. But I need not tell you, that though windows will transmit the light into a room, they cannot supply the lack of light. When the day is gone—the windows are of little use. When the day returns, the room is enlightened by them again. Thus, unless the Lord shines, I cannot retain today—the light I had yesterday! And though His presence makes a delightful difference, I have no more to boast of in myself at one time than another. When He is with me—all goes on pleasantly. When He withdraws—I find I can do nothing without Him.
I need not wonder that I find it so; for it must be so of course, if I am what I confess myself to be—a poor, helpless, sinful creature in myself. Nor need I be over-much discouraged, since the Lord has promised to help those who can do nothing without Him—and not those who can make a tolerable shift to help themselves.
In His great mercy, He does not so totally withdraw, as to leave me without any power or will to cry for His return. I hope He maintains in me at all times—a desire for His presence. Yet it befits me to wait for Him with patience, and to live upon His faithfulness, when I can feel nothing but evil in myself.
In your letter, after having complained of your inability, you say you converse with many who find it otherwise, who can go whenever they will to the Father of mercies with a child-like confidence, and never return without an answer—an answer of peace. If they only mean that they are favored with an established faith, and can see that the Lord is always the same, and that their right to the blessings of the covenant is not at all affected by their unworthiness, I wish you and I had more experience of the same privilege. In general, the Lord helps me to aim at it—though I find it sometimes difficult to hold fast my confidence. But if they speak absolutely with respect to their spiritual frames, that they not only have something to support them under their changes—but meet with no changes that require such support—I must say it is well that they do not live here; if they did, they would not know how to pity us, and we would not know how to understand them!
We have an enemy here—that fights against our peace, and I know not one among us but often groans under the warfare. I advise you not to be troubled by what you hear of other folk's experience—but keep close to the written Word, where you will meet with much to encourage you, though you often feel yourself weary and heavy-laden. For my own part, I like that path best which is well beaten by the footsteps of the flock, though it is not always pleasant and strewed with flowers. In our way we find some hills, from whence we can cheerfully look about us—but we meet with deep valleys likewise, and seldom travel long upon even ground.
My dear Miss,
I am satisfied with your answer to my question. we are not proper judges of each other's circumstances; and I am in some measure weaned from judging hastily—that what would not be good for me—must therefore necessarily be wrong for another. However, my solicitude for your welfare made me venture to drop a hint, as I was persuaded you would take it in good part. Indeed all situations and circumstances (supposing them not sinful in themselves, and that we are lawfully placed in them) are nearly alike.
How often, when I am what I call alone—may my mind be compared to a puppet-show, a fair, a bazaar, or any of those scenes where folly, noise and wickedness most abound? On the contrary, sometimes I have enjoyed sweet recollection and composure where I would have hardly expected it. But still, though the power be all of the Lord, (and we of ourselves can do nothing), it is both our duty and our wisdom to be attentive to the use of appointed means on the one hand, and, on the other, watchful against those things which we find by experience have a tendency to damp our fervor, or to dissipate our spirits.
A comfortable intimacy with a fellow-worm cannot be maintained without a certain discretion and caution, a studiousness in improving opportunities of pleasing, and in avoiding what is known to be offensive. For though love will make large allowances for involuntary mistakes, it cannot easily brook a deliberate slight. We act thus as it were by instinct towards those whom we dearly love, and to whom we feel ourselves greatly obliged. And happy are they who are most influenced by this sentiment in their walk before the Lord.
But, alas! here we are chargeable with such inconsistencies, as we would be greatly ashamed of in common life. It is well for us, that His thoughts and ways are above ours—and that He is infinite in mercy as well as in power! For surely, our dearest friends would have been weary of us, and have renounced us long ago—had we behaved towards them as we have too often done towards Him! Yet, being infinite in patience, He remains gracious to us—though we have too often trifled with Him! Surely we may well say with the prophet, "Who is a God like unto You—who pardons iniquity!" His tenderness and forbearance towards His own people (whose sins, being committed against His love and mercy, are more aggravated than others) is astonishing indeed! But, oh! may the times past suffice to have grieved Him; and may we be enabled from henceforth to serve Him with a single eye and a simple heart, to be faithful to every intimation of His will, and to make Him our All in all!
Mr. **** has been here, and I have been with him at **** since his return. We seem glad to be together when we can. When I am with him, I feel quite at home and at ease, and can tell him (so far as I dare tell a creature) all that is in my heart; a plain proof, that union of spirit depends no more upon an exact uniformity of sentiment, than on a uniformity of prayers. For in some points of doctrine we differ considerably—but I trust I agree with him in the views I have of the excellency, suitableness, and sufficiency of the Savior, and of his right to reign without a rival in the hearts of his redeemed people.
An experimental knowledge of Jesus, as the deliverer from sin and wrath, and the author of eternal life and salvation to all who are enabled to believe—is a sufficient ground for union of heart. In this point, all who are taught of God are of one mind. But an eager fighting for or against those points which are usually made the subjects of controversy, tends to nourish pride and evil tempers in ourselves, and to alienate our hearts from those we hope to spend an eternity with. In heaven we shall neither be Dissenters, Moravians, nor Methodists; neither Calvinists nor Arminians—but followers of the Lamb, and children of the kingdom. There we shall hear the voice of controversy no more.
We are still favored with health and many temporal blessings. My spiritual walk is not so smooth as my outward path. In public, I am mercifully supported; but in secret, I most sensibly feel my own vileness and weakness—and through all, the Lord is gracious.
January 10, 1775.
My dear Miss,
There is hardly anything in which the Lord permits me to meet with more disappointment, than in the advantage I am ready to promise myself from creature-converse. When I expect to meet any of my Christian friends, my thoughts usually travel much faster than my body. I anticipate the hour of meeting, and my imagination is warmed with expectation of what I shall say, and what I shall hear; and sometimes I have had seasons for which I ought to be more thankful than I am. It is pleasant indeed when the Lord favors us with a happy hour, and is pleased to cause our hearts to burn within us while we are speaking of his goodness. But often it is far otherwise with me, I carry with me a dissipation of spirit, and find that I can neither impart nor receive blessing. Something from within or from without crosses my schemes, and when I retire I seem to have gained nothing but a fresh conviction, that we can neither help nor be helped—unless the Lord himself is pleased to help us. With his presence in our hearts, we might be comfortable and happy if shut up in one of the cells of a prison—without it, the most select company, the most desirable opportunities, prove but clouds without water!
I have sometimes thought of asking you, whether you find that difference between being abroad and at home that I do? But I take it for granted that you do not; your connections and intimacies are, I believe, chiefly with those who are highly favored of the Lord, and if you can break through or be upon your guard against the inconveniences which attend frequent changes and much company—you must be very happy in them. But I believe, considering my weakness, the Lord has chosen wisely and well for me, in placing me in a state of retirement, and not putting it in my power, were it ever so much my inclination, to be often abroad. As I stir so seldom, I believe when I do—that it is not, upon the whole, to my disadvantage; for I meet with something more or less upon which my reflections afterwards may, by his blessing, be useful to me; though at the time my visits most frequently convince me how little wisdom or skill I have in improving time and opportunities.
But were I to live in London, I know not what might be the consequence. Indeed I need not puzzle myself about it, as my call does not lie there—but I pity and pray for those who do live there; and I admire such of them as, in those circumstances which appear so formidable to me, are enabled to walk simply, humbly, and closely with the Lord. They remind me of Daniel, unhurt in the midst of lions; or of the bush which Moses saw, surrounded with flames—yet not consumed, because the Lord was there. Some such I do know, and I hope you are one of the number.
This is certain—that if the light of God's countenance, and communion with him in love, afford the greatest happiness we are capable of—then whatever tends to indispose us for this pursuit, or to draw a veil between him and our souls—must be our great loss. If we walk with him, it must be in the path of duty, which lies plain before us when our eye is single; and we are waiting with attention upon his Word, Spirit, and providence. Now, wherever the path of duty leads—we are safe; and it often does lead and place us in such circumstances as no other consideration would make us choose. We were not designed to be mere recluses—but have all a part to act in life. Now, if I find myself in the midst of things disagreeable enough in themselves to the spiritual life—yet if, when the question occurs, What are you doing here? my heart can answer, I am here by the will of God; I believe it to be, all things considered, my duty to be here at this time, rather than elsewhere.
If, I say, I am tolerably satisfied of this, then I would not burden and grieve myself about what I cannot avoid or alter—but endeavor to take all such things up with cheerfulness, as a part of my daily cross; since I am called, not only to do the will of God—but to suffer it—but if I am doing my own will—rather than his, then I have reason to fear, lest I should meet with either a snare or a sting at every step! May the Lord Jesus be with you!
April 13, 1776.
I am of the last to present my congratulations to you and Mr. **** on your marriage—but I have not been unmindful of you. My heart has repeatedly wished you all that my pen can express, that the new relation in which the providence of God has placed you may be blessed to you in every respect, may afford you much temporal comfort, promote your spiritual progress, and enlarge your sphere of usefulness in the world and in the church.
By this time I suppose visits and ceremonies are pretty well over, and you are beginning to be settled in your new situation. What an important period is a wedding-day! What an entire change of circumstances does it produce! What an influence it has upon every day of future life! How many cares, inquietudes, and trials, does it expose us to, which we might otherwise have avoided! But those who love the Lord, and are guided by his Word and providence, have nothing to fear; for in every state, relation, and circumstance in life—he will be with them, and will surely do them good. His grace, which is needful in a single life—is sufficient for a married, life. I sincerely wish you and your husband much happiness together; that you may be mutually helpers, and assist each other in walking as fellow-heirs of the hope of eternal life. Your cares and trials I know must be increased; may your comforts be increased proportionally! They will be so, if you are enabled heartily and simply to entreat the Lord to keep your heart fixed near to himself.
All the temporal blessings which God provides to sweeten life, and make our passage through this wilderness more agreeable, will fail and disappoint us, and produce us more thorns than roses—unless we can keep sight of his hand in bestowing them, and hold and use the gifts in some due subserviency to what we owe to the Giver. But, alas! we are poor creatures, prone to wander, prone to admire our gourds, cleave to our cisterns, and think of building tabernacles, and taking our rest in this polluted world! Hence the Lord often sees it necessary, in mercy to his children, to embitter their sweets, to break their cisterns, send a worm into their gourds, and draw a dark cloud over their pleasing prospects. His Word tells us, that all here below is vanity, compared with the light of his countenance; and if we cannot or will not believe it upon the authority of his Word, we must learn it by painful experience.
May he enable you to settle it in your hearts, that creature-comforts are precarious, insufficient, and ensnaring; that all good comes from his hand, and that nothing can do us good—but so far as he is pleased to make it the instrument of communicating, as a stream, that goodness which is in him as a fountain. Even the bread which we eat, without the influence of his blessing, would no more support us than a stone! But his blessing makes everything good, gives a tenfold value to our comforts, and greatly diminishes the weight of every cross.
The ring upon your finger is of some value as gold—but this is not much. What makes it chiefly valuable to you is, that you consider it as a pledge and token of the relation you bear to him who gave it to you. I know no fitter emblem of the light in which we should consider all those good things which the Lord gives us richly to enjoy. When everything we receive from him is received and prized as a fruit and pledge of his covenant-love; then his bounties, instead of being set up as rivals, and idols to draw our hearts from him—awaken us to fresh exercises of gratitude, and furnish us with fresh motives of cheerful obedience every hour.
Time is short, and we live in a dark and cloudy day, when iniquity abounds, the love of many waxes cold; and we have reason to fear the Lord's hand is lifted up in displeasure at our provocations. May he help us to set loose all below, and to be found watching unto prayer—for grace to keep our garments undefiled, and to be faithful witnesses for him in our places! O! it is my desire for myself and for all my dear friends, that while too many seem content with mere profession, a mere name to live, and an outward attachment to ordinances and sentiments and parties—we may be ambitious to experience what the glorious Gospel is capable of effecting, both as to sanctification and consolation, in this state of infirmity; that we may have our loins girded up, our lamps burning, and, by our simplicity and spirituality, constrain those who know us—to acknowledge that we have been with Jesus, have sat at his feet, and drank of his spirit!