John Newton's Letters
Nine letters to a pastor
Jan. 16, 1772.
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.
July 31, 1773.
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
Feb. 22, 1774,
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
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.
Feb. 3, 1775.
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
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.
May 28, 1775.
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!
April 18, 1776.
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
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
July 6, 1776.
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
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
Our love to all friends.
June 3, 1777.
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
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
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