Reformation Books: John Newton. From disgrace to amazing grace.
You won’t often find me recommending books by former Conservative politicians and disgraced cabinet ministers. However this book, by Jonathan Aitken, is the exception. It works, perhaps, because Aitken is so perfectly placed to identify with John Newton’s incredible journey from disgrace to amazing grace.
It is a really well researched book charting the course of Newton’s life from the early death of his mother, to seafaring, slave trading, ordination and to his eventual participation in the abolitionist movement. On the way we are given fascinating insights into the life and times of one of the most incredible hymn writers and preachers of the eighteenth century.
Not only was I thrilled by the drama and romance of Newton’s early life, God’s gracious and relentless pursuit of his heart, but I found myself amazed by the lessons God was teaching me through the account of Newton’s later ministry and pastoral practice. Newton’s success in the parish of Olney rested on a combination of evangelical zeal in preaching, openness in giving account of his own testimony, faithful dedication in pastoral work, generous hospitality and his persistence in friendship and prayer for those with whom he disagreed.
I particularly enjoyed reading of the friendship Newton struck up with William Cowper, one of the greatest poets of the eighteenth century. At the time they met, Cowper was unknown, unstable (suffering from depression) and unemployed; but over time, through continued Christian compassion and practical encouragement Newton enabled Cowper to find a sense of personal balance and gave him an outlet to express his creative genius. In return Cowper was able to support Newton through a time when the preaching, pastoral and authorial demands were a great pressure upon him.
Together they wrote, Olney Hymns, in 1779. In this we find the first copy of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, one of the later hymns in the book, it was written after Cowper’s mental health again deteriorated. For a long time the hymn remained unnoticed or celebrated. I find it encouraging that the hymn wasn’t written in the flush of his first evangelical conversion, or as a great statement of Newton’s new found abolitionist beliefs, but as one of a number of expressions of his wonder at God’s grace.
Looking back upon and contemplating John Newton’s life reminds me that our lives are rarely straight forward; we often encounter false starts, obstacles, detours. Sometimes we look back upon things we’ve said or done with regret, but God’s faithfulness is proved constant through all our wavering. John Newton’s gift as preacher and teacher waned, his memory and eye sight faded, but right to the end he held on to two truths that: 1. ‘I am a great sinner’ 2. ‘That Christ is a great Saviour’ and for that we may all give thanks.