John Newton's Letters

Seriously engaged about trifles

November, 1775
Dear sir,
In the midst of the hurries and changes of this unsettled state—we glide along swiftly towards an unchangeable world; and shall soon have as little connection with the scenes we are now passing through, as we have with what happened before the Flood! All which appears great and interesting in the present life, abstracted from its influence upon our internal character, and our everlasting destiny—will soon be as unreal as a dream of the night. This we know and confess; but, though our judgments are convinced, it is seldom that our hearts are duly affected by the thought. And while I find it easy to write in this moralizing strain, I feel myself disposed to be seriously engaged about trifles—and trifling in the most serious concerns—as if I believed the very contrary!

It is with good reason the Lord challenges as his own prerogative, the full knowledge of the deceitfulness, desperate wickedness, and latent depths of the human heart, which is capable of making even his own people so shamefully inconsistent with themselves, and with their acknowledged principles.

I find that, when I have something agreeable in expectation, that my imagination paints and prepares the scene beforehand, hurries me over the intervening space of time, as though it were a useless blank, and anticipates the pleasure I propose. Many of my thoughts of this kind are mere waking dreams; for perhaps the opportunity I am eagerly waiting for, never happens—but is swallowed up by some unforeseen disappointment; or if not, something from within or without prevents its answering the idea I had formed of it.

Nor does my imagination confine itself within the narrow limits of probabilities; it can busy itself as eagerly in ranging after dreams and impossibilities, and engage my attention to the ideal pursuit of things which are never likely to happen. In these respects my imagination travels with wings; so that if the wildness, the multiplicity, the variety of the phantoms which pass through my mind in the space of a winter's day, were known to my fellow-creatures, they would probably deem me, as I am often ready to deem myself—but a more sober and harmless kind of lunatic!

But if I endeavor to put this active, roving power in a right track, and to represent to myself those scenes, which, though not yet present, I know will soon be realized, and have a greatness which the most enlarged exercise of my powers cannot comprehend. But if I would fix my thoughts upon the hour of death, the end of the world, the coming of the omniscient Judge, or similar subjects—then my imagination is presently tame, cold, and jaded, travels very slowly, and is soon wearied in the road of truth; though in the fairy fields of uncertainty and folly it can skip from mountain to mountain!

Mr. Addison supposes, that the imagination alone, as it can be differently affected, is capable of making us either inconceivably happy, or inconceivably miserable. I am sure it is capable of making us miserable, though I believe it seldom gives us much pleasure—but such as is to be found in a fool's paradise! But I am sure, that were my outward life and conduct perfectly free from blame, the disorders and defilement of my imagination are sufficient to constitute me a chief sinner, in the sight of Him to whom the thoughts and intents of the heart are continually open—and who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity!

Upon this head I cannot but lament how universally, almost, education is suited, and as it were designed—to add to the stimulus of depraved nature. A cultivated imagination is commended and sought after as a very desirable talent, though it seldom means more than the possession of a large stock of other people's dreams and fables, with a certain quickness in compounding them, enlarging upon them, and exceeding them by inventions of our own. Poets, painters, and even historians, are employed to assist us, from our early years—in forming an habitual relish for shadows and colorings, which both indispose for the search of truth, and even unfit its for its reception, unless proposed just in our own way!

The best effect of the Belles Letters upon the imagination, seems generally expressed by the word Taste. And what is this taste—but a certain disposition which loves to be humored, soothed, and flattered, and which can hardly receive or bear the most important truths, if they are not decorated and set off with such a delicacy and address, as taste requires? I say the most important truths; because truths of a secular importance strike so closely upon the senses, that the decision of taste perhaps is not waited for.

Thus, if a man is informed of the birth of his child, or that his house is on fire, the message takes up his thoughts, and he is seldom much disgusted with the manner in which it is delivered. But what an insuperable bar is the refined taste of many, to their profiting by the preaching of the Gospel, or even to their hearing it? Though the subject of a gospel discourse is weighty, and some just representation given of the evil of sin, the worth of the soul, and the love of Christ; yet, if there is something amiss in the elocution, language, or manner of the preacher, people of taste must be possessed, in a good measure, of grace likewise—if they can hear him with tolerable patience. And perhaps three fourths of those who are accounted the most sensible and judicious in the auditory, will remember little about the sermon—but the tone of the voice, the awkwardness of the attitude, the obsolete expressions, and the like; while the poor and simple, not being encumbered with this hurtful accomplishment, receive the messenger as the Lord's servant, and the truth as the Lord's Word, and are comforted and edified.

But I stop. Some people would say, that I must suppose you to have but little taste, or else much grace, or I should not venture to trouble you with such letters as mine.