Biography: John Newton: More Than a Hymnwriter

During his first pastorate in Olney, John Newton produced an amazing 282 hymns. Among those hymns are well-known favorites such as Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, and Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken. But Newton was more than a hymn writer.

Abolitionist By the age of 30, Newton grew to despise the trading of slaves. He quit the slave trade and became an ardent slavery abolitionist. One of Newton’s long-time friends was the aunt of a young man by the name of William Wilberforce. God used Newton’s influence to move Wilberforce against the slave trade. Wilberforce was a well-known British Parliamentarian who helped abolish slavery. Incidentally, the very year John Newton died, the United States enacted a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa.

Biblical counselor Newton’s closest friend was William Cowper. Together, they produced a hymnal called Olney Hymns. Given Cowper’s physical condition, this was a major accomplishment. Throughout his life Cowper battled moments of extreme melancholy (depression). It was at those times that Newton counseled him to get out of his bed, cross the street, and work in the orphanage. Some would consider this prescription to be unloving. In fact, this was sound biblical advice. Also, consider Cowper’s own words of Newton:

“A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had.”

Defender of the faith Newton was a prolific writer. Among his writings were biographies, histories, and various letters to friends. He wrote a series of letters to a preacher friend exhorting him to reject Arminian theology. The following are some excerpts from these letters.

For I believe fallen man, universally considered as such, is as incapable of doing the least thing towards his salvation, till prevented by the grace of God, as a dead body is of restoring itself to life. . . . he is so blinded by Satan, so alienated from God by nature and wicked works, so given up to sin, so averse from that way of salvation, which is contrary to his pride and natural wisdom, that he will not embrace it, or seek after it; and, therefore, he cannot, till the grace of God powerfully enlightens his mind, and overcomes his obstacles.

Newton spilled much ink in support of Calvinistic theology. He championed the cause of God’s sovereignty and warned others of the natural man’s spiritual inability. Why would Newton devote so much effort to promote Calvinism? Because for Newton it was neither dispensable nor trivial. Speaking of the doctrine of unconditional election, Newton wrote:

. . . if it [unconditional election] be indeed absurd, shocking, and unjust, the blame will not deservedly fall upon me, for I did not invent it, but upon the Scriptures, where I am sure, it is laid down in as plain terms that God created the heavens and the earth. . . .

Newton also warned Christians not to invoke mystical practices when determining God’s will. The following words are fitting even for our generation of Christians:

Some persons, when in doubt, have opened the Bible at a venture, and expected to find something to direct them in the first verse they should cast their eye upon. It is no small discredit to this practice, that the Heathens, who knew not the Bible, used some of their favourite books in the same way: and grounded their persuasions of what they ought to do, or of what should befall them, according to the passage they happened to open upon.

Although Newton is most known for composing hymns such as Amazing Grace, he has left us much more. He was instrumental in abolishing slavery. He is an example of a loving but honest biblical counselor, and a defender of the faith.

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