John Newton's Letters

Nine letters to a pastor

Letter 1
Jan. 16, 1772.
Dear Sir,
It is true that I was apprehensive from your silence, that I had offended you—but when your letter came it made me full amends. And now I am glad I wrote as I did, though I am persuaded I shall never write to you again in the same strain. I am pleased with your gracious attitude; and your bearing so well to be told of the mistakes which I pointed out to you—endears you more to me than if you had not made them. Henceforward I can converse freely with you, and shall be glad when I have the opportunity.

Plain people are easily puzzled. I have met with many preachers who have appeared to be rather wise than warm, rather positive than humble, rather faultfinding than lively, and more disposed to talk of speculations than experience. However, let us give ourselves to the study of the Word, and to prayer; and may the great Teacher make every Scriptural truth food to our souls.

I desire to grow in knowledge—but I want nothing which has not a direct tendency to make sin more hateful, Jesus more precious to my soul; and at the same time to animate me to a diligent use of every appointed means, and an unreserved regard to every branch of duty. I think the Lord has shown me in a measure, that there is a consistent sense running through the whole Scripture, and I desire to be governed and influenced by it all. Doctrines, precepts, promises, warnings, all have their proper place and use. I think many of the errors of the present day, spring from separating those things which God has joined together, and insisting on some parts of the Word of God almost to the exclusion of the rest.

I have filled my paper with what I did not intend to say a word of when I began, and must leave other things which were more upon my mind for another season. I thank you for praying for me. Continue that kindness; I both need it and prize it.


Letter 2
July 31, 1773.
Dear Sir,
I received your sorrowful epistle yesterday; and in order to encourage you to write, I answer it today.

The ship was safe when Christ was in it—though he was really asleep. At present I can tell you good news, though you know it; He is wide awake, and his eyes are in every place! You and I, if we could be joined together, might perhaps make two tolerable ones. You are too anxious, and I am too easy in some respects. Indeed I cannot be too easy—when I have a right thought that all is safe in his hands. But if your anxiety makes you pray, and my composure makes me careless, you have certainly the best of it. However, the ark is fixed upon an immovable foundation; and if we think we see it totter, it is owing to a dizziness in our heads. Seriously, the times look dark and stormy, and call for much circumspection and prayer—but let us not forget that we have an infallible Pilot, and that the power and wisdom and honor of God are embarked with us. Jesus has both wind and weather are at his command, and he can turn the storm into a calm in a moment. We may therefore safely and confidently leave the government upon his shoulders. Duty is our part; the care is his.

A revival is needed with us, as well as with you; and I trust some of us are longing for it. We are praying and singing for one; and I send you, on the other side, a hymn, that you (if you like it) may sing with us. Let us take courage. though it may seem marvelous in our eyes, it is not so in the Lord's. He changed the desert into a fruitful field, and bid dry bones to live! And if he prepares our heart to pray—he will surely incline his ear to hear!

The miscarriages of professors are grievous—yet such things must be; how else could the Scriptures be fulfilled? But there is one who is able to keep us from falling. Some who have distressed us, perhaps never were truly converted; how then could they stand? We see only the outside. Others who are sincere are permitted to fall for our instruction, that we may not be high-minded, but fear. However, he who walks humbly—walks surely!


Letter 3
Feb. 22, 1774,
Dear Sir,
There is a danger of leaning to impressions. Texts of Scripture brought powerfully to the heart are very desirable and pleasant—if their tendency is to humble us, to give us a more feeling sense of the preciousness of Christ, or of the doctrines of grace; if they make sin more hateful, enliven our regard to the means, or increase our confidence in the power and faithfulness of God. But if they are understood, as intimating our path of duty in particular circumstances, or confirming us in purposes we may have already formed, not otherwise clearly warranted by the general strain of the Word, or by the leadings of Providence, they are for the most part ensnaring, and always to be suspected. Nor does their coming into the mind at the time of prayer give them more authority in this respect. When the mind is intent upon any subject, the imagination is often watchful to catch at anything which may seem to countenance the favorite pursuit. It is too common to ask counsel of the Lord—when we have already secretly determined for ourselves! And in this disposition, we may easily be deceived by the sound of a text of Scripture, which, detached from the passage in which it stands, may seem remarkably to tally with our wishes! Many have been deceived this way; and sometimes, when the event has shown them they were mistaken, it has opened a door for great distress, and Satan has found occasion to make them doubt even of their most solid experiences.

I have sometimes talked to **** upon this subject, though without the least suspicion of anything like what has happened. As to the present case, it may remind us all of our weakness. I would recommend prayer, patience, much tenderness towards her, joined with faithful expostulation. Wait a little while, and I trust the Lord who loves her will break the snare. I am persuaded, in her better judgment, she would dread the thoughts of doing wrong; and I hope and believe the good Shepherd, to whom she has often committed her soul and her ways—will interpose to restore and set her right.

I am sorry you think any of whom you have hoped well, are going back—but be not discouraged. I say again, pray, and wait—and hope the best. It is common for young professors to have a slack time; it is almost necessary, that they may be more sensible of the weakness and deceitfulness of their hearts, and be more humbled in future, when the Lord shall have healed their breaches, and restored their souls. We join in love to you and yours. Pray for us.


Letter 4
Feb. 3, 1775.
Dear Sir,
It is very lawful at your age to think of marriage, and, in the situation you describe, to think of money likewise. I am glad you have no person, as you say, fixedly in view; in that case, advice comes a post or two too late. But your expression seems to intimate, that there is one transiently in view. If it is so, since you have no settlement, if she has no money, I cannot but wish she may pass on until she is out of sight and out of mind.

I take it for granted, that you are free from the love of filthy lucre; and that money will never be the turning point with you in the choice of a wife. Methinks I hear you think, If I needed money, I would either dig or beg for it—but to preach or marry for money, that is far from me. I commend you. However, though the love of money is a great evil, money itself, obtained in a fair and honorable way, is desirable, upon many accounts, though not for its own sake. Food, clothes, and housing, cannot easily be had without it. Therefore, if these are necessary, money which procures them must be necessary likewise. If things were otherwise than you represent them, if you were able to provide for a wife, then I would say, Find a gracious girl (if she be not found already) whose person you like, whose temper you think will suit; and then, with your father and mother's consent (without which I think you would be unwilling to move), thank the Lord for her, marry her, and account her a valuable portion, though she should not have a shilling! But while you are without income or settlement, if you have thoughts of marriage, I hope they will be regulated by a due regard to consequences.

Those who set the least value upon money, have in some respects the most need of it. A generous mind will feel a thousand pangs in strait circumstances, which some unfeeling hearts would not be sensible of. You could perhaps endure hardships alone—yet it might pinch you to the very bone—to see the person you love exposed to them. Besides, you might have a John, a Thomas, and a William, and half a dozen more to feed (for they must all eat); and how this could be done without a sufficient income? Besides, you would be grieved not to find an occasional shilling in your pocket to bestow upon one or another of the Lord's poor, though you should be able to make some sort of a shift for those of your own house.

But is it not written, "The Lord will provide"? It is. But it is written also, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God." Hastily to plunge ourselves into difficulties, upon a persuasion that God will find some way to extricate us, seems to me a species of tempting him!

Therefore I judge, it is so far lawful for you to have a regard to money in looking out for a wife, that it would be wrong, that is, in other words, unlawful, for you to omit it, supposing you have a purpose of marrying in your present situation.

Many serious young women have a preference in favor of a minister of the Gospel; and I believe among such, one or more may be found as spiritual, as amiable, as suitable to make you a good wife, with a tolerable fortune to boot—as another who has not a penny. If you are not willing to trust your own judgment in the search, entreat the Lord to find her for you. He chose well for Isaac and Jacob; and you, as a believer, have warrant to commit your way to him, and many more express promises than they had for your encouragement. He knows your state, your wants, what you are at present, and what use he designs to make of you. Trust in him, and wait for him. Prayer, and faith, and patience, are never disappointed. I commend you to his blessing and guidance. Remember us to all in your house.


Letter 5
May 28, 1775.
Dear Sir,
You must not expect a long letter this morning. I am just going to court, in hopes of seeing the King, for he has promised to meet me. We can say that he is mindful of his promise; and yet it is astonishing, that though we are all in the same place, and the King in the midst of us—it is but here and there one (even of those who love him) can see him at once. However, in our turns we are all favored with a glimpse of him, and have had cause to say, How great is his goodness! How great is his beauty! We have the advantage of the queen of Sheba; a more glorious object to behold, and not so far to go for the sight of it. If a transient glance exceeds all that the world can afford for a long continuance, what must it be to dwell with him? If a day in his courts be better than a thousand elsewhere, what will eternity be in his presence?

I hope the more you see—the more you love; the more you drink—the more you thirst; the more you do for him—the more you are ashamed you can do so little; and that the nearer you approach to your journey's end—the more your pace is quickened. Surely, the power of spiritual attraction should increase—as the distance lessens. O that heavenly magnet! May it so draw us that we may not creep—but run. In common traveling, the strongest become weary if the journey is very long—but in the spiritual journey we are encouraged with a hope of going on from strength to strength. No road but the road to heaven, can thus communicate refreshment to those who walk in it, and make them more fresh and lively when they are just finishing their course than when they first set out!


Letter 6
April 18, 1776.
Dear Sir,
Are you sick, or lame of your right hand, or are you busy in preparing a folio for the press—that I hear nothing from you? You see by the excuses I would contrive, that I am not willing to suppose that you have forgotten me—but that your silence is rather owing to a cannot than a will not.

I hope your soul prospers. I do not ask you if you are always filled with sensible comfort—but do you find your spirit more bowed down to the feet and will of Jesus, so as to be willing to serve him for the sake of serving him, and to follow him, as we say, through thick and thin; to be willing to be anything or nothing—so that he may be glorified? I could give you plenty of good advice upon this head—but I am ashamed to do it, because I so poorly follow it myself! I want to live with him by the day, to do all for him, to receive all from him, to possess all in him, to live all to him, to make him my hiding-place and my resting-place. I want to deliver up that rebel SELF to him in chains—but the rogue, like Proteus, puts on so many forms, that he slips through my fingers! But I think I know what I would do if I could fairly catch him.

My soul is like a besieged city—a legion of enemies outside the gates, and a nest of restless traitors within—which hold a correspondence with those outside—so that I am deceived and undermined continually! It is a mercy that I have not been overwhelmed long ago. Without help from Jesus—it would soon be over with me. How often have I been forced to cry out, "O God, the enemies have gotten into your castle! They defiled your holy temple—and defaced all your work!" Indeed it is a miracle that I still hold out. I trust, however, I shall be supported to the end, and that my Lord will at length destroy the siege, and cause me to shout deliverance and victory!

Pray for me—that my walls may be strengthened and wounds healed. We are all pretty well as to the outward man, and join in love to all friends.


Letter 7
July 6, 1776.
Dear Sir,
I was abroad when your letter came—but employ the first post to thank you for your confidence. My prayers (when I can pray) you may be sure of. As to advice, I see not that the case requires much. Only be a quiet child—and lie patiently at the Lord's feet. He is the best friend and manager in these matters, for he has a key to open every heart!

I would not have taken Mr. Z****'s letter for a denial, as it seems you did. Considering the years of the parties involved, and other circumstances, a prudent parent could hardly say more, if he were inclined to favor your views. To me you seem to be in a tolerably fair way—but I know in affairs of this kind, that Mr. Self does not like suspense—but would like come to the point at once. But Mr. Faith (when he gets liberty to hold up his head) will own, that, in order to make our temporal mercies wear well, and to give us a clearer sense of the hand which bestows them—a waiting and a praying time are very seasonable.

Worldly people expect their schemes to run upon all-fours, as we say, and the objects of their wishes to drop into their mouths without difficulty; and if they succeed, they of course burn incense to themselves, and say, "This was my doing!" But believers meet with rubs and disappointments, which convince them, that if they obtain anything, it is the Lord who must do it for them. For this reason I observe, that he usually brings a death upon our prospects, even when it is his purpose to give us success in the outcome. Thus we become more assured that we did not act in our own selfish hearts, and have a more satisfactory view that his providence has been concerned in filling up the rivers and removing the mountains that were in our way. Then when he has given us our desire—how pleasant is it to look at it and say, This I got, not by my own sword, and my own bow—but I wrestled for it in prayer! I waited for it in faith, I put it into the Lord's hand, and from his hand I received it.

You have met with the story of one of our kings, who wanted to send a nobleman abroad as his ambassador, and he desired to be excused on account of some affairs which required his presence at home. The king answered, "You take care of my business—and I will take care of yours." I would have you think the Lord says thus to you. You were sent into the world for a nobler end than to be pinned to a girl's apron-string! And yet if the Lord sees it not good for you to be alone, he will provide a help-mate for you. I say, if he sees the marriage state best for you, he has the proper person already in his eye. And though she were in Peru or Nova-Zembla, he knows how to bring you together. In the mean time—you go and preach the Gospel. Watch in all things; endure afflictions; do the work of an Evangelist; make full proof of your ministry. And when the thoughts rise in your mind (for you have no door to shut them quite out), run with them to the Throne of Grace, and commit them to the Lord! Satan will perhaps try to force them upon you unseasonably and inordinately—but if he sees they drive you to prayer, he will probably desist, rather than be the occasion of doing you so much good.

Believe likewise, that as the Lord has the appointment of the person, so He fixes the time. His time is like the time of the tide—all the art and power of man can neither hasten nor retard it a moment. it must be waited for; nothing can be done without it, and, when it comes, nothing can resist it. It is unbelief which talks of delays. Faith knows that, properly, there can be no such thing. The only reason why the Lord seems to delay what he afterwards grants is—that the best hour is not yet come. I know you have been enabled to commit and resign your all to his disposal. You did well. May He help you to stand to the surrender. Sometimes He will put us to the trial, whether we mean what we say. He takes his course in a way we did not expect; and then, alas! how often does the trial put us to shame! Presently there is an outcry raised in the soul against his management of a particular situation; in short, all these things are against us! And then we go into the pulpit, and gravely tell the people how wise and how good he is; and preach submission to his will, not only as a duty—but a privilege! Alas, how deceitful is the heart! Yet since it is and will be so, it is necessary we should know it by experience. We have reason, however, to say, He is good and wise; for he bears with our perverseness, and in the outcome, shows us that if he had listened to our murmuring, and taken the methods we have prescribed to him, we would have been ruined indeed, and that He has been all the while doing us good—in spite of ourselves!

If I judge right, you will find your way providentially opened more and more; and yet it is possible, that when you begin to think yourself sure, something may happen to put you in a panic again. But a believer, like a sailor, is not to be surprised if the wind changes—but to learn the art of suiting himself to all winds for the time. And though many a poor sailor is shipwrecked, the poor believer shall gain his port. O it is good sailing with an infallible Pilot at the helm, who has the wind and weather at his command!

If I did not love you well, I would not have spared so much of the only day I have had to myself for these past two weeks. But I was willing you should know that I think of you and feel for you, if I cannot help you.

I have read Mr. ****'s book. Some things are strongly argued; in some he has laid himself open to a blow, and I doubt not but he will have it. I expect answers, replies, rejoinders, etc. and say with Leah, Gad, a troop comes. How the wolf will grin—to see the sheep and the shepherds biting and worrying one another! And well he may. He knows that contentions are a surer way to weaken the spirit of love, and stop the progress of the Gospel, than his old stale method of fire and sword. Well, we shall be of one heart and one mind when we get to heaven at least.

Let who will fight, I trust neither water nor fire shall set you and me at variance. We unite in love to you. The Lord is gracious to us, etc.


Letter 8
Dear Sir,
I do not often serve your letters so—but this last I burnt, believing you would like to have it out of danger of falling into improper hands. When I saw how eagerly the flames devoured the paper, how quickly and entirely every trace of the writing was consumed, I wished that the fire of the love of Jesus might as completely obliterate from your heart every uneasy impression which your disappointment has given you. Surely when he crosses our wishes it is always in mercy, and because we are short-sighted creatures, we often know not what we ask, nor what would be the consequences if our desires were granted.

Your pride, it seems, has received a fall by meeting a repulse. I know SELF does not like to be mortified in these affairs—but if you are made successful in wooing souls for Christ, I hope that will console you for meeting a rebuff when only wooing for yourself. Besides, I would have you pluck up your spirits. I have a good old proverb at your service. "There are as good fish in the sea—as any which are brought out of it." Perhaps all your difficulties have arisen from this—that you have not yet met the right person. if so, you have reason to be thankful that the Lord would not let you take the wrong, though you unwittingly would have done it if you could. Where the right one lies hidden, I know not. The Lord in his providence will disclose her, put her in your way, and give you to understand, "This is she!" Then you will find your business go forward with wheels and wings, and have cause to say that His choice and time were better than your own.

Did I not tell you formerly, that if you would take care of his business—he will take care of yours? I am of the same mind still. He will not allow those who fear Him and depend upon Him, to lack anything that is truly good for them. In the mean while, I advise you to take a lodging as near as you can to Gethsemane, and to walk daily to mount Golgotha, and borrow (which may be had for asking) that telescope which gives a prospect into the unseen world. A view of what is passing within the veil has a marvelous effect to compose our spirits, with regard to the little things which are daily passing here on earth. Praise the Lord, who has enabled you to fix your supreme affection upon Him who is alone the proper and suitable object of it, and from whom you cannot meet a denial or fear a change. He loved you first, and He will love you forever; and if He is pleased to arise and smile upon you, you are in no more necessity of begging for happiness to the prettiest creature upon earth, than of the light of a candle on Midsummer noon.

Upon the whole, I pray and hope the Lord will sweeten your cross, and either in kind or in kindness, make you good amends. Wait, pray, and believe—and all shall be well. A cross we must have somewhere; and those who are favored with health, plenty, peace, and a conscience sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, must have more causes for thankfulness than grief. Look round you, and take notice of the very severe afflictions which many of the Lord's own people are groaning under, and your trials will appear comparatively light.

Our love to all friends.


Letter 9
June 3, 1777.
Dear Sir,
It seems I must write something about the smallpox—but I know not well what. Not having had it myself, I cannot judge how I would feel if I were actually exposed to it. I am not a professed advocate for inoculation.

But if a person who fears the Lord should tell me—"I think I can do it in faith, looking upon it as a beneficial expedient, which God in his providence has revealed, and which therefore appears my duty to have recourse to, so that my mind does not hesitate with respect to the lawfulness, nor am I anxious about the event; being satisfied, that whether I live or die, I am in that path in which I can cheerfully expect his blessing;" —I do not know that I could offer a word by way of dissuasion.

If another person should say—"My times are in the Lord's hands; I am now in health, and am not willing to bring upon myself a disorder, the consequences of which I cannot possibly foresee. If I am to have the smallpox, I believe he is the best judge of the season and manner in which I shall be visited, so as may be most for his glory and my own good; and therefore I choose to wait his appointment, and not to rush upon even the possibility of danger without a call. If the very hairs of my head are numbered, I have no reason to fear that, supposing I receive the smallpox in a natural way, I shall have a single pimple more than he sees expedient; and why should I wish to have one less? Nay, admitting, which however is not always the case, that inoculation might exempt me from some pain and inconvenience, and lessen the apparent danger, might it not likewise, upon that very account, prevent my receiving some of those sweet consolations which I humbly hope my gracious Lord would afford me, if it were his pleasure to call me to a sharp trial? Perhaps the chief design of this trying hour, if it comes, may be to show me more of his wisdom, power, and love, than I have ever yet experienced. If I could devise a means to avoid the trouble, I know not how great a loser I may be in point of grace and comfort. Nor am I afraid of my face—it is now as the Lord, has made it, and it will be so after the smallpox. If it pleases him, I hope it will please me. In short, though I do not censure others—yet, as to myself, inoculation is what I dare not venture upon. If I did venture, and the outcome should not be favorable, I would blame myself for having attempted to take the management out of the Lord's hands, into my own; which I never did yet in other matters, without finding I am no more able than I am worthy to choose for myself. Besides, at the best, inoculation would only secure me from one of the innumerable natural evils the flesh is heir to. I would still be as liable as I am at present to a putrid fever, a bilious colic, an inflammation in the stomach, or in the brain, and a thousand formidable diseases which are hovering round me—and only wait his permission to cut me off in a few days or hours. And therefore I am determined, by his grace, to resign myself to his disposal. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord (for his mercies are great), and not into the hands of men!"

If a person should talk to me in this strain, most certainly I could not say, "Notwithstanding all this, your safest way is to be inoculated."

We preach and hear, and I hope we know something of faith—as enabling us to trust the Lord with our souls. I wish we had all more faith to trust him with our bodies, our health, our provision, and our temporal comforts likewise. The former should seem to require the strongest faith of the two! How strange is it, that when we think we can do the greater, we should be so awkward and unskillful when we aim at the less?

Give my love to your friend. I dare not advise—but if she can quietly return at the usual time, and neither run intentionally into the way of the smallpox, nor run out of the way—but leave it simply with the Lord, I shall not blame her. And if you will mind your praying and preaching, and believe that the Lord can take care of her without any of your contrivances, I shall not blame you. Nay, I shall praise him for you both. My prescription is to read Psalm 121 every morning before breakfast, and pray it over until the cure is effected.

"I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore!" Psalm 121:1-8