(1725 – 1807)
Ministry in Olney and Woolnoth
John began his ministry in the little market town of Olney. The main trades in Olney – one of the poorest towns in England – were farming and lace-making. John Thornton, a wealthy businessman and evangelical philanthropist, supported John by supplementing his meager annual stipend of 60 pounds with another 200 pounds.
John’s preaching drew many to the church. He was so popular “that the congregation added a gallery to the church to accommodate the many persons who flocked to hear him” (Wikipedia). John served in Olney for sixteen years. “The Olney period was the most fruitful of his life. His zeal in pastoral visiting, preaching and prayer-meetings was unwearied. He formed his lifelong friendship with William Cowper, and became the spiritual father of Thomas Scott the commentator” (http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/bnewton.html).
In January 1780, at the invitation of Thornton, John left Olney for another ministry in St Mary, Woolnoth in Lombard Street, London where he served until his death. His new ministry included not only the London poor but also the merchant class. It was here that his counsel was sought by many including the young William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament who had “recently suffered a crisis of conscience and religious conversion while contemplating leaving politics. The younger man consulted with Newton, who encouraged Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and ‘serve God where he was’” (Wikipedia).
In later years, it was with Wilberforce that John embarked on the campaign to abolish slavery. In his publication, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, John admitted that this was “a confession, which ... comes too late. ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders”(http://spartacus-educational.com/SnewtonJ.htm). In February 1807, when the abolition of slave act finally became law, John, nearly blind and near death, “rejoiced to hear the wonderful news” (http://abolition.e2bn.org/people_35.html).
A devoted pastor
For 43 years, his two flocks had a special place in John’s tender heart. His biographer, Richard Cecil, said that John’s preaching was often not “careful nor graceful in delivery but he possessed … so much affection for his people, and so much zeal for their best interests, that the defect of his manner was little consideration with his constant hearers.” Once, John wrote about his busyness: “I have a good many sheep and lambs to look after, sick and afflicted souls dear to the Lord; and therefore, whatever stands still, these must not be neglected.”
Ministry to William Cowper
Known for his tenderness, John ministered very specially to his dear friend, William Cowper, an emotionally unstable and melancholic poet and hymn-writer. When Cowper became so depressed that he could not function alone, John took him into his home for several months. With such a spirit of benevolence and affection, it was not surprising that John’s “house was an asylum for the perplexed or afflicted” (Richard Cecil).
When Cowper’s brother died in March 1770, John encouraged him to write hymns for the church. The two men worked together to write a new hymn for each worship service and prayer meeting. The following year, they formally collaborated on a project to publish a collection of their hymns. Olney Hymns which was first published in 1779, included 68 hymns composed by William Cowper and 280 by John Newton. The latter’s most famous contributions include Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds! and Amazing Grace.
The last hymn written by Cowper for Olney Hymns was God Moves in a Mysterious Way. The next day, in January 1773, Cowper sank into the deepest depression. Despite John’s frequent visits to his dejected friend, Cowper never went to hear his pastor preach again.
When his beloved wife, Mary, died on December 15, 1790, John was heart-broken. He later confessed: “The world seemed to die with her.” But the following Sunday, the congregation watched as their bereaved pastor mounted the steps of the pulpit and preached from Habakkuk 3: 17-18: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” This was a text he had long reserved for this occasion, should he outlive Mary. In his deep grief, God’s Word comforted his soul.
In later years, when he became too blind to read, Newton continued to preach until the last year of his life. Even then, he never ceased to be amazed by God’s grace and told his friends: “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things; That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour”(http://www.wholesomewords.org/devotion6.html). When he was advised to give up preaching because of his failing health, John replied: “I cannot stop. What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
John died in London December 21, 1807 at the age of 82. He was buried beside his wife in St Mary, Woolnoth. His epitaph, which he wrote himself, reads:
“JOHN NEWTON, Clerk, Once an infidel and libertine, A servant of slaves in Africa, Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Preserved, restored, pardoned, And appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy, Near 16 years at Olney, in Bucks And 27 years in this church.”
God’s amazing grace turned John Newton, the once merciless slave trader and infidel into a faithful servant of the Lord. May we be challenged also to a life of faith and devotion, to love and serve the Lord till Jesus returns. Amen.