John Newton's Letters
Six letters to a pastor
Sept. 14, 1765.
When I was at London last June, your name first reached me, and from that
time I have been desirous to wish you success in the name of the Lord. A few
weeks ago I received a further account from Mrs. ****, with a volume of your
sermons. She likewise gave me a direction where to write, and an
encouragement that a letter would not be unacceptable. The latter indeed I
did not much need when I had read your book. Though we have no acquaintance,
we are already united in the strictest ties of friendship, partakers of the
same hope, servants of the same Lord, and in the same part of his vineyard.
I therefore hold all apologies needless. I rejoice in the Lord's goodness to
you; I pray for his abundant blessing upon your labors; I need an interest
in your prayers; I have an affectionate desire to know more concerning you.
these are my motives for writing.
Mrs.**** tells me that you have read my Narrative.
I need not tell you, therefore, that I am one of the most astonishing
instances of the forbearance and mercy of God upon the face of the earth. In
the close of it, I mention a warm desire I had to the ministry. This the
Lord was pleased to keep alive for several years, through a succession of
views and disappointments. At length his hour came, and my way was made
easy. I have been here about fifteenth months. The Lord has led me by a way
that I little expected, to a pleasant lot, where the Gospel has been many
years known, and is highly valued by many. We have a large church and
congregation, and a considerable number of lively thriving believers, and in
general go on with great comfort and harmony. I meet with less opposition
from the world than is usual where the Gospel is preached. This burden was
borne by Mr. B**** for ten years; and in that course of time some of the
fiercest opposers were removed, some wearied, and some softened; so that we
are now remarkably quiet in that respect. May the Lord teach us to improve
the privilege, and preserve us from indifference.
How unspeakable are our obligations to the grace of God!
What a privilege is it to be a believer! They are comparatively few,
and we by nature were no nearer than others—it was grace, free grace, which
made the difference! What an honor to be a minister of the
everlasting Gospel! These upon comparison are perhaps fewer still. How
wonderful that one of these few should be sought for among the wilds of
Africa, reclaimed from the lowest state of impiety and misery, and brought
to assure other sinners, from his own experience, that "there is forgiveness
with God, that he may be feared."
And you, sir, though not left to give such flagrant
proofs of the wickedness of the heart and the power of Satan—yet owe your
present views to the same almighty grace. If the Lord had not distinguished
you from your brethren, you would have been now in the character of a false
minister, misleading the people, and opposing those precious truths you are
now laboring to establish. Not unto us, O Lord—but unto your name be the
glory! I shall be thankful to hear from you at your leisure. Be pleased to
inform me whether you received the knowledge of the truth before or since
you were in the ministry; how long you have preached the joyful sound of
salvation by Jesus; and what is the state of things in your parts.
We are called to an honorable service—but it is
arduous. What wisdom does it require to keep the middle path in
doctrines, avoiding the equally dangerous errors on the right hand and the
left! What steadiness, to speak the truth boldly and faithfully in
the midst of a gainsaying world! What humility, to stand against the
tide of popularity! What meekness, to endure all things for the
elect's sake, that they may be saved! "Who is sufficient for these things?"
We are not in ourselves—but there is an all-sufficiency in Jesus.
Our enemy watches us closely; he desires to have us, that
he may sift us as wheat. He knows he can easily shake us—if we are left to
ourselves. But we have a Shepherd, a Keeper, who never slumbers nor sleeps!
If he permits us to be exercised, it is for our good; he is at hand to
direct, moderate, and sanctify every dispensation. He has prayed for us—that
our faith may not fail; and he has promised to maintain his fear in
our hearts, that we may not depart from him. When we are prone to wander—he
calls us back; when we say, "my feet slip"—his mercy holds us up; when we
are wounded—he heals us; when we are ready to faint, he revives us.
The people of God are sure to meet with
enemies—but especially the ministers. Satan bears them a double
grudge. The world watches for their halting, and the Lord will allow them to
be afflicted, that they may be kept humble, that they may acquire a sympathy
with the sufferings of others, that they may be experimentally qualified to
advise and help them, and to comfort them with the comforts with which they
themselves have been comforted of God. But the Captain of our salvation is
with us. His eye is upon us; his everlasting arm beneath us.
In his name therefore may we go on, lift up our banners, and say, "If God be
for us—who can be against us? Nay, in all these things we are more than
conquerors, through him who has loved us!" The time is short. In a little
while—he will wipe all tears from our eyes, and put a crown of life upon our
heads with his own gracious hand!
If any occasions should call you into these parts, my
house and pulpit will be glad to receive you. Pray for us, dear sir!
Nov. 2, 1765.
Very dear Sir,
Your last letter gave me great pleasure. I thank you for the particular
account you have favored me with. I rejoice with you, sympathize with you,
and find my heart opened to correspond with unreserved freedom. May the Lord
direct our pens, and help us to help each other. The work you are engaged in
is great, and your difficulties many—but faithful is he who has called you,
who also will do it. The weapons which he has now put into your hands are
not carnal—but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong-holds. Men
may fight—but they shall not prevail against us, if we are but
enabled to put our cause simply into the Lord's hands, and keep steadily on
in the path of duty. He will plead our cause, and fight our battles; he will
pardon our mistakes, and teach us to do better.
My experience as a minister is but small, having been but
about eighteen months in the vineyard—but for about twelve years I have been
favored with an increasing acquaintance among the people of God, of various
ranks and denominations, which, together with the painful exercises of my
own heart, gave me opportunity of making observations which were of great
use to me when I entered upon the work myself. And ever since, I have found
the Lord graciously supplying new lights and new strength, as new
occurrences arise. So I trust it will be with you. I endeavor to avail
myself of the examples, advice, and sentiments of my brethren—yet at the
same time to guard against calling any man master. This is the
peculiar of Christ. The best of men—are but men; the wisest may be mistaken;
and that which may be right in another—might be wrong in me, through a
difference of circumstances. The Spirit of God distributes his gifts
variously; and I would no more be tied to act strictly by others' rules—than
to walk in shoes of the same size. My shoes must fit my own feet.
I endeavor to guard against extremes. Our nature
is prone to them, and we are liable likewise, when we have found the
inconvenience of one extreme, to revert insensibly (sometimes to fly
suddenly) to the other. I pray to be led in the middle of the path. I
am what they call a Calvinist—yet there are particularities and hard
sayings to be found among some of that system, which I do not choose to
imitate. I dislike those sentiments against which you have borne your
testimony in the note at the end of your preface. But, having known many
precious souls in that party, I have been taught, that the kingdom of God is
not in names and theological sentiments—but in righteousness,
faith, love, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
I would, however, upon some occasions oppose those
tenets, if they had any prevalence in my neighborhood—but they have not. In
general, I believe the surest way to refute or prevent error—is to preach
the truth. I am glad to find you are aware of that spirit of enthusiasm
which has so often broken loose and blemished hopeful beginnings, and that
the foundation you build upon is solid and Scriptural. This will, I hope,
save you much trouble, and prevent many offenses. Let us endeavor to make
our people acquainted with the Scripture, and to impress them with a
high sense of its authority, excellence, and sufficiency. Satan seldom
remarkably imposes on ministers or people, except where the Word of God is
too little consulted or regarded.
Another point in which I aim at a medium, is in what is
called prudence. There is certainly such a thing as Christian prudence, and
a remarkable deficiency of it is harmful. But caution too often
degenerates into cowardice; and if the fear of man, under the
name of prudence, gets within our guard, like a chilling frost it
nips everything in the bud. Those who trust the Lord, and act openly, with
an honest freedom and consistency, I observe that God generally bears them
out, smooths their way, and makes their enemies their friends, or at least
restrains their rage. While such as halve things, temporize,
and aim to please God and man together, meet with double disappointment, and
are neither useful nor respected. If we trust to Him—He will stand by us; if
we regard men—He will leave us to make the best we can of them.
I have set down hastily what occurred to my pen, not to
dictate to you—but to tell you how I have been led, and because some
expressions in your letter seemed to imply that you would not be displeased
with me for so doing. As to books, I think there is a medium here likewise.
I have read too much in time past—yet I do not wholly join with some of our
brethren, who would restrain us entirely to the Word of God. Undoubtedly
this is the fountain; here we should dwell—but a moderate and judicious
perusal of other authors may have its use; and I am glad to be indebted to
such helps, either to explain what I do not understand, or to confirm me in
what I do. Of these, the writings of the last age afford an immense variety.
But, above all, may we, dear sir, live and feed upon the
precious promises, John 14:16, John 14:17, John 14:26; and John 16:13-15.
There is no teacher like Jesus, who by his Holy Spirit reveals himself in
his Word—to the understanding and affections of his children. When we thus
behold his glory in the Gospel looking-glass, we are changed into his image.
Then our hearts melt, our eyes flow, our stammering tongues are unloosed.
That this may be your increasing experience, is my sincere prayer.
Jan. 21, 1766.
Your letters give me the sincerest pleasure. Let us believe that we are
daily thinking of and praying for each other, and write when opportunity
offers, without apologies. I praise the Lord that he has led you so soon to
a settled judgment in the leading truths of the Gospel. For lack of this,
many have been necessitated with their own hands to pull down what, in the
first warm emotions of their zeal, they had labored hard to build. It is a
mercy, likewise, to be enabled to acknowledge what is excellent in the
writings or conduct of others, without adopting their singularities, or
discarding the whole—on account of a few blemishes. We should
be glad to receive instruction from all, and avoid being wholly led by any.
We have one master, even Christ.
We may grow wise quickly in opinions—by learning from
books and men—but vital, experimental knowledge can only be received
from the Holy Spirit, the great instructor and comforter of his people. And
there are two things observable in his teaching:
1. That he honors the means of his own
appointment, so that we cannot expect to make any great progress without
diligence on our part.
2. That he does not teach all at once—but by degrees.
Experience is his school; and by this I mean the observation and
improvement of what passes within us and around us in the course of every
The Word of God affords a history in miniature, of the
heart of man, the devices of Satan, the state of the world, and the method
of grace. And the most instructing and affecting commentary on it, to an
enlightened mind, may be gathered from what we see, feel, and hear from day
to day. No knowledge in spiritual things but what we acquire in this way, is
properly our own, or will abide the time of trial.
This is not always sufficiently considered. We are ready
to expect that others should receive upon our testimony, in half an hour's
time, those views of things which have cost us years to attain! But none can
be brought forward faster than the Lord is pleased to communicate inward
light. Upon this ground controversies have been multiplied among Christians
to little purpose; for plants of different standings will be in different
degrees of growth.
A young Christian is like a green fruit—it has perhaps a
disagreeable austerity, which cannot be corrected out of its proper course;
it needs time and growth. Wait a while, and, by the nourishment it receives
from the root, together with the action of the sun, wind, and rain in
succession from without—it will insensibly acquire that flavor and maturity
for the lack of which, an unskillful judge would be ready to reject it as
We are favored with many excellent books in our
tongue—but I with you agree in assigning one of the first places (as a
teacher) to John Owen. I have just finished his Discourse on the Holy
Spirit, which is an epitome, if not the master-piece, of his writings. I
would be glad to see the republication you speak of—but I question if the
booksellers will venture upon it. I shall perhaps mention it to my London
friends. As to Robert Leighton, besides his Select Works, there are two
octavo volumes, published at Edinburgh in the year 1748, and since reprinted
at London. They contain a valuable Commentary on Peter's First Epistle, and
Lectures on Isaiah six, Psalm 39:1-13, Psalm 134:1-3, and a part of Romans
12. I have likewise a small quarto, in Latin, of his Divinity Lectures, when
professor at Edinburgh. Mine was printed in London 1698. I believe this book
is scarce. I set the highest value upon it. He has wonderfully united the
simplicity of the Gospel with all the captivating beauties of style and
language. Burner says he was the greatest master of the Latin tongue he ever
new; of which, together with his compass of learning, he has given proof in
his Lectures. Yet, in his gayer dress, his eminent humility and spirituality
appear to no less advantage than when clad in plain English. I think it may
be said to be a diamond set in gold. I could wish it translated, if
it was possible (which I almost question) to preserve the beauty and spirit
of the original.
Jonathan Edwards on Free Will, I have read with
pleasure, as a good answer to the proud reasoners in their own way—but a
book of that sort cannot be generally read. Where the subject matter
is unpleasing, and the method of treating it requires more attention than
the Athenian spirit of the times will bear, I do not wonder that it is
You send us good news indeed, that two more of your
brethren are declaring on the Gospel side. May the Lord confirm and
strengthen them, add yet to your numbers, and make you helps and comforts to
each other. Surely he is about to spread his work. Happy are those whom he
honors to be fellow-workers with him. Let us account the disgrace we suffer
for his Name's sake—to be our great honor. Many will be against us—but there
are more for us. All the praying souls on earth, all the glorified saints in
heaven, all the angels of God, yes, the God of angels himself—all are on our
side. Satan may rage—but he is a chained enemy. Men may contend and
fight—but they cannot prevail.
Two things we shall especially need—courage and patience,
that we neither faint before them, nor upon any provocation act in their
spirit. If we can pity and pray for them, return good for
evil, make them sensible that we bear them a hearty good-will, and act as
the disciples of Him who wept for his enemies, and prayed for
his murderers—in this way we shall find the Lord will plead our cause,
soften opposers, and by degrees give us a measure of outward peace. Blind
zeal and imprudence have often added to the burden of the cross. I rejoice
that the Lord has led you in a different way; and I hope your doctrine
and example will make your path smoother every day—you find it so
in part already. As the Lord calls out a people, and witnesses for you to
the truth of his Word—you will find advantage in bringing them often
together. The interval from Sabbath to Sabbath is a good while, and affords
time for the world and Satan to creep in. Intermediate meetings for prayer,
etc., when properly conducted, are greatly useful. I could wish for larger
sheets and longer leisure—but I am constrained to say adieu, in our dear
Lord and Savior.
Dec. 12, 1767.
This is not intended as an answer to your last kind letter—but an occasional
line, in consequence of the account Mr. T**** has given me of your late
illness. I trust this dispensation will be useful to you; and I wish the
knowledge of it may be so to me. I am favored with an unusual share of good
health, and an equal flow of spirits. If the blow you have received should
be a warning to me, I shall have cause to be thankful. I am glad to hear you
are better; I hope the Lord has no design to disable you from service—but
rather (as he did Jacob) to strengthen you by wounding you; to
maintain and increase in you that conviction which, through grace, you have
received—of the vanity and uncertainty of everything below; to give you a
lively sense of the value of health and opportunities; and to add to the
treasury of your experience—new proofs of his power and goodness, in
supporting, comforting, and healing you; and likewise to quicken the prayers
of your people for you, and to stir them up to use double diligence in the
present improvement of the means of grace, while by this late instance they
see how soon and suddenly you might have been removed from them.
I understand you did not feel that lively exercise of
faith and joy which you would have hoped to have found at such a season. But
let not this discourage you from a firm confidence, that, when the hour of
death shall come, the Lord will be faithful to his gracious promise, and
give you strength sufficient to encounter and vanquish your last enemy.
You had not this strength lately, because you needed it not. for though you
might think yourself near to death, the Lord intended to restore you, and he
permitted you to feel your weakness, that you might know your strength does
not consist in grace received—but in his fullness, and his promise to
communicate from himself as your occasions require. Oh, it is a great thing
to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus! but it is a hard lesson.
It is not easy to understand it in theory—but, when the Lord has taught us
so far, it is still more difficult to reduce our knowledge to
But this is one end he has in view in permitting us to
pass through such a variety of inward and outward trials, that we may cease
from trusting in ourselves, or in any creature or frame
or experiences, and be brought to a state of submission and
dependence upon him alone. I was once visited something in the same way,
seized with a fit of the apoplectic kind, which held me near an hour, and
left a disorder in my head which quite broke the scheme of life! This was,
consequently, one of the means the Lord appointed to bring me into the
ministry—but I soon perfectly recovered.
I think dear Mr. **** some years since, had a sudden
stroke on a Christmas day, which disabled him from duty for a time. To him
and to myself, these turns were only like the caution which Philip of
Macedon ordered to be repeated to him every morning, "Remember you are
mortal." I hope it will be no more to you—but that you shall live to
praise him, and to give many cause to praise him on your behalf.
Blessed be God—we are in safe hands! The Lord himself is
our keeper; nothing befalls us but what is adjusted by his wisdom and love.
Health is his gift; and sickness, when sanctified, is a token of his love
likewise. Here we may meet with many things which are not joyous—but
grievous to the flesh—but he will in one way or other sweeten every bitter
cup, and before long he will wipe away all tears from our eyes. Oh that
joy, that crown, that glory—which awaits the believer! Let
us keep the prize of our high calling in view, and press forward in the name
of Jesus the Redeemer, and he will not disappoint our hopes.
I am but just come off from a journey, am weary, and it
grows late; must therefore break off. When you have leisure and strength to
write, gratify me with a confirmation of your recovery, for I shall be
somewhat anxious about you.
March 14, 1775.
My dear Friend,
I thought you long in writing—but am afraid I have been longer. A heavy
family affliction called me from home in December, which put me out of my
usual course, and threw me behind-hand in my correspondence—yet I did not
suspect the date of your last letter was so old by two months as I now find
it. Whether I write more frequently or more seldom—the love of my heart to
you is the same; and I shall believe the like of you—yet, if it can be
helped, I hope the interval will not be so long again on either side.
I am glad that the Lord's work still flourishes in your
parts, and that you have a more comfortable prospect at home than formerly.
I was pleased with the acceptance you found at S****; which I hope will be a
pledge of greater things. I think affairs in general, with respect to this
land, have a dark appearance—but it is comfortable to observe, that, amidst
the abounding of iniquity, the Lord is spreading his Gospel; and that,
though many oppose—yet in most places where the Word is sent, great numbers
seem disposed to hear. I am going (if the Lord pleases) into Leicestershire
on Friday. This was lately such a dark place as you describe your country to
be, and much of it is so still—but the Lord has visited three of the
principal towns with Gospel light. I have a desire of visiting these
brethren in the vineyard, to bear my poor testimony to the truths they
preach, and to catch, if I may, a little fire and fervor among them.
I do not often go abroad—but I have found a little
excursion now and then (when the way is made plain) has its advantages, to
quicken the spirits, and enlarge the sphere of observation. On these
accounts, the recollection of my last journey gives me pleasure to this day;
and very glad would I be to repeat it—but the distance is so great, that I
consider it rather as desirable than practical.
My experiences vary as well as yours. But possibly your
sensations, both of the sweet and of the bitter, may be stronger than mine.
The enemy assaults me more by sap—than by storm; and I am
ready to think I suffer more by languor than some of my friends do—by the
sharper conflicts to which they are called. So likewise, in those seasons
which comparatively I call my best hours, my sensible comforts are far from
lively. But I am in general, enabled to hold fast my confidence, and to
venture myself upon the power, faithfulness, and compassion of that adorable
Savior to whom my soul has been directed and encouraged to flee for refuge!
I am a poor, changeable, inconsistent creature—but he deals graciously with
me. He does not leave me wholly to myself—but I have such daily proofs of
the malignity and efficacy of the sin that dwelt in me, as ought to cover me
with shame and confusion of face, and make me thankful if I am permitted to
rank with the lowest of those who sit at his feet. That I was ever called
to the knowledge of his salvation, was a singular instance of his
sovereign grace; and that I am still preserved in the way, in
defiance of all that has arisen from within and from without to turn me
aside—must be wholly ascribed to the same sovereignty! And if, as I trust,
he shall be pleased to make me a conqueror at last, I shall have peculiar
reason to say, Not unto me, not unto me—but unto your name, O Lord, be
the glory and the praise!
How oft have sin and Satan strove
To rend my soul from you, my God!
But everlasting is your love,
And Jesus seals it with his blood.
The Lord leads me, in the course of my preaching, to
insist much on a life of communion with himself, and of the great design of
the Gospel to render us conformable to him in love. And as, by his mercy,
nothing appears in my outward conduct remarkably to contradict what I
say—many, who only can judge by what they see, suppose I live a very happy
life. But, alas! if they knew what passes in my heart, how dull my spirit is
in secret, and how little I am myself affected by the glorious truths I
propose to others—they would form a different judgment! Could I be
myself what I recommend to them—I would be happy indeed. Pray for me,
my dear friend, that, now the Lord is bringing forward the pleasing spring,
he may favor me with a spring season in my soul; for indeed I mourn under a
April 16, 1772.
My dear Friend,
I hope the Lord has contracted my desires and aims almost to the one point
of study—the knowledge of his truth. All other acquisitions are transient,
and comparatively vain! And yet, alas! I am a slow scholar! Nor can I
see in what respect I get forward, unless that every day I am more confirmed
in the conviction of my own emptiness and inability to all spiritual good.
And as, notwithstanding this, I am still enabled to stand my ground, I would
hope, since no effect can be without an adequate cause, that I have made
some advance, though in a manner imperceptible to myself,
towards a more simple dependence upon Jesus as my all in all. It is given me
to thirst and to taste, if it is not given me to drink
abundantly; and I am thankful for the desire.
I see and approve the wisdom, grace, suitableness, and
sufficiency of Gospel salvation; and since it is for sinners, and I am a
sinner, and the promises are open—I do not hesitate to call it mine. I am a
weary, heavy-laden soul; Jesus has invited me to come, and has enabled me to
put my trust in him. I seldom have an uneasy doubt, at least not of any
continuance, respecting my pardon, acceptance, and saving interest in all
the blessings of the New Testament. And, amidst a thousand infirmities and
evils under which I groan, I have the testimony of my conscience, when under
the trial of his Word, that my desire is sincerely towards him, that I
choose no other portion, that I allowedly serve no other master.
When I told this to our friend lately—he wondered, and
asked, "How is it possible, that, if you can say these things, you should
not be always rejoicing?" Undoubtedly I derive from the Gospel a peace at
bottom, which is worth more than a thousand worlds. But though I rest and
live upon the truths of the Gospel—they seldom impress me with a warm and
lively joy. In public, indeed, I sometimes seem in earnest and much
affected—but even then it appears to me rather as a part of the gift
entrusted to me for the edification of others, than as a sensation which is
properly my own. For when I am in private, I am usually dull and stupid to a
strange degree, or the prey to a wild and ungoverned imagination; so that I
may truly say, when I would do good, evil, horrid evil, is present with
Ah, how different is this from sensible comfort! and if I
was to compare myself to others, to make their experience my standard, and
was not helped to retreat to the sure Word of God as my refuge, how hard
would I find it to maintain a hope that I had either part or lot in the
matter! What I call my best times, are when I can find my attention
in some little measure fixed to what I am about; which indeed is not always,
nor frequently, my case in prayer, and still seldom in reading the
Scripture. My judgment embraces these means as blessed privileges, and Satan
has not prevailed to drive me from them. But in the performance of
them, I too often find them tasks; feel a reluctance when the seasons
return, and am glad when they are finished. O what a mystery is the
heart of man! What a warfare is the life of faith! (at least in the
path the Lord is pleased to lead me.) What reason have I to lie in the dust
as the chief of sinners, and what cause for thankfulness that salvation is
wholly of grace!
Notwithstanding all my complaints, it is still true that
Jesus died and rose again; that he ever lives to make intercession, and is
able to save to the uttermost! But, on the other hand, to think of that joy
of heart in which some of his people live, and to compare it with that
apparent deadness and lack of spirituality which I feel—this makes me mourn.
However, I think there is a Scriptural distinction between faith and
feeling, grace and comfort—they are not inseparable, and perhaps, when
together, the degree of the one is not often the just measure of the other.
But though I pray that I may be ever longing and panting for the light of
his countenance—yet I would be so far satisfied, as to believe the Lord has
wise and merciful reasons for keeping me so short of the comforts which he
has taught me to desire and value more than the light of the