NEWTON, JOHN (1725-1807), divine and friend of the poet Cowper, born in London on 24 July 1725 (O.S.), was son of a commander in the merchant service engaged in the Mediterranean trade. His mother, who gave him some religious training, died of consumption, 11 July 1782. Thereupon his father married again, and the child was sent to school at Stratford, Essex, where he learned some Latin. When he was eleven (1736) he went to sea with his father, and made six voyages with him before 1742. In that year the elder Newton retired from the service, and subsequently becoming governor of York Fort, under the Hudson's Bay Company, was drowned there in 1751. Meanwhile the son, after returning from a voyage to Venice about 1743, was impressed on board H.M.S. Harwich, and, although made midshipman through his father's influence, he soon deserted. When recaptured he was degraded to the rank of a common seaman (1745), and at his own request exchanged off Madeira into a slaver, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He became subsequently servant to a slave-trader on one of the Plantane islands, and suffered brutal persecution. By another master he was treated more humanely, and was given some share in the business. Early in 1748 he was rescued at a place called Kittam by the captain of a vessel whom his father had asked to look out for him.
During his wandering life he had lost all sense of religion, and afterwards accused himself of degrading debauchery. But the dangers of the homeward voyage, when Newton was set to steer the ship through a storm, suddenly awakened in him strong religious feeling. To the end of his days he kept the anniversary of his 'conversion,' 10 (21st N.S.) March 1748, as a day of humiliation and thanksgiving for his 'great deliverance.' On settling again in England, he was offered by a Liverpool friend of his father, Mr. Manesty, the command of one of his slave vessels. He preferred, however, to go as mate first (1748-9). On 12 Feb. 1750 he was married at Chatham to Mary Catlett, the daughter of a distant relative, with whom he had been in love since 1742, when he was only seventeen, and the girl no more than fourteen. Three voyages followed his marriage, but in 1754, owing to ill-health, he relinquished his connection with the sea. During his adventurous career as a sailor he succeeded in educating himself. Even while in Africa he had mastered the first six books of Euclid, drawing the figures on the sand. Subsequently he taught himself Latin, reading Virgil, Terance, Livy, and Erasmus, and learning Horace by heart. At the same time he studied the Bible with increasing devotion; and adopted, under the instruction of a friend at St. Kitts (Captain Clunie), Calvinistic views of theology. Although a captain of slave-ships, he repressed swearing and profligacy, and read the Liturgy twice on Sunday with the crew.
From 1756 to 1760 Newton held, on the recommendation of Manesty, the post of surveyor of the tides at Liverpool. Shortly after his settlement there, Whitefield, whom he had already met in London, arrived in Liverpool. Newton became his enthusiastic disciple, and gained the nickname of 'young Whitefield.' At a later period Wesley visited the town, and Newton laid the foundation of a lasting friendship with him; while he obtained introductions to Grimshaw at Haworth, Venn at Huddersfield, Berridge at Everton, and Romaine in London. Still eagerly pursuing his studies, he taught himself Greek, and gained some knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac. He soon resolved to undertake some ministerial work; but he was undecided whether to become an independent minister or a clergyman of the church of England. In December 1758 he applied for holy orders to the Archbishop of York, on a title in Yorkshire, but received through the archbishop's secretary 'the softest refusal imaginable.' In 1760 he was for three months in charge of an independent congregation at Warwick. In 1763 he was brought by Dr. Raweis, rector of Aldwinkle, to the notice of Lord Dartmouth, the young evangelical nobleman; and on 29 April 1764 was ordained deacon, and on 17 June priest. His earliest charge was the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire, in Lord Dartmouth's patronage. In the same year he published an account of his life at sea and of his religious experiences, called 'The Authentic Narrative.' It reached a second edition within the year, and still holds a high place in the history of the evangelical movement.
Olney was a small market town occupied in the manufacture of straw plait and pillow lace, with a large poor population. Moses Browne [q. v.] was the vicar, but had recently ceased to reside, on his appointment to the chaplaincy of Morden College, Blackheath. Newton's stipend, which was only 60l. a year, was soon supplemented by the munificence of John Thornton the evangelical merchant, to whom he had sent a copy of 'The Authentic Narrative.' Thornton allowed him 200l. a year, enjoining him to keep 'open house' for those 'worthy of entertainment;' to 'help the poor,' and to draw on him for what he required further. Newton faithfully discharged the trust. The church became so crowded that a gallery was added. Prayer-meetings, at which his parishioners and his friends among the neighbouring dissenting ministers took part with him in leading the prayers, were held in the large room at Lord Dartmouth's old mansion, the Great House. Newton preached incessantly, not only in Olney, but in cottages and houses of friends far and near. In October 1767 the poet Cowper and Mrs. Unwin settled at Oiney. Their house at Orchard Side was only separated from the vicarage by a paddock. Cowper at once identified himself with the religious life of the village. He joined Newton in all religious services, in his preaching tours, and in his visits to the sick and dying. But in 1772-3 Cowper's religious madness returned, and he made a renewed attempt at suicide [see COWPER, WILLIAM]. Cowper's mania ultimately took a Calvinistic tone; but it is more reasonable to attribute this fact to the fierce Calvinistic controversy which raged at the time in the religious world than to the influence of Newton, whose Calvinism was always moderate, and a latent rather than a conspicuous force. The extreme tension and emotional excitement of the life at Olney under Newton's guidance must, however, have been very dangerous to Cowper. Still more dangerous was the spirit of desolation and self-accusation which pervades all Newton's writings, and which is directly reflected in the hymns and letters written by Cowper while at Olney. Newton regarded spiritual conflict as the normal type of God's dealing with the awakened soul (see OMICRON, Letters, letter xi), and hence was blind to the disastrous physical effects of Cowper's delusion. He throughout treated him with exquisite tenderness. For thirteen months Cowper and Mrs. Unwin lived with him at the vicarage. To the end of his life he had the deepest affection for Cowper, and they never ceased to correspond together. Two temporary breaches in their friendship--on the publication of the 'Task' and on Cowper's removal to Weston--were due to Newton's puritanical objections to every form of secular amusement, and to any sort of toleration for Roman catholicism--sentiments which Cowper only imperfectly shared. His letters had always the affectionate aim of removing Cowper's delusion as to the divine reprobation, but they generally deepened his gloom. They were, however, not always sombre. Newton, like Cowper, was capable at times of an easy, natural, and even playful epistolary style (See especially SOUTHEY, Life of Cowper, iv. 111), and sought to amuse Cowper by a display of a shrewd and quaint humour (see BULL, Life of John Newton, p. 250; cf. OVERTON, Evangelical Revival, p. 74; CECIL, Anecdotes; NEWTON, Letters to Bull of Newport Pagnell; CAMPBELL, Conversational Remarks of John Newton). Jay of Bath credited Newton with the 'drollest fetches of humour.' During his residence at Olney, Newton published a volume of 'Olney Sermons' (1767); a 'Review of Ecclesiastical History,' which suggested to Joseph and Isaac Milner the idea of their large 'History' (1770); and 'Omicron's Letters' (1774), which had appeared in the 'Gospel Magazine' under that signature. Other letters under the signature of 'Vigil' were added to the edition of 1785. Finally, in 1779 was issued the 'Olney Hymns,' which had great and lasting popularity. The book contained sixty-eight pieces by Cowper, and 280 by Newton, including 'How sweet the name of Jesus Sounds!' The contrast between the two writers' contributions is not great, but such hymns as exhibit any real flash of poetic genius may be safely assigned to Cowper. Only about twenty of the hymns remain in general use. One of the finest by Newton is 'Glorious things of Thee are spoken,' and it is the only really jubilant hymn in the book (see JULIAN, Dict. of Hymnology). The last years at Olney had their discouragements. The prayer meetings had led to much party spirit, self-conceit, and antinomianism. Newton's zealous attempts to check some dangerous orgies on 5 Nov. so infuriated the rabble that he had to give them money in order to protect his house from violence. Consequently, in January 1780, he accepted the offer made by John Thornton of the benefice of St. Mary Woolnoth with St. Mary Woolchurch, Lombard Street.
When Newton came to London, Romaine was the only other evangelical incumbent there. His church accordingly was soon crowded by strangers, and to the end of his life his congregation was very large. The bulk of his preaching was extempore, and both Venn and Cecil testify to his scant preparation. His utterance was not clear, and his gestures were uncouth. But his marked personality and history, his quaint illustrations, his intense conviction of sin, and his direct address to men's perplexities, temptations, and troubles, sent his words home. His printed sermons have no literary value. In 1781 he published his most considerable work, 'Cardiphonia,' a selection from his religious correspondence. The easy and natural style of the book, the sincerity, fervour, and almost womanly tenderness of the writer, and the vivid presentation of evangelical truths, gave it an immediate popularity, and it opened to Newton his most distinctive office in the evangelical revival--that of a writer of spiritual letters. Numbers of these have been published since his death. He said that his letters would fill many folios, and that 'it was the Lord's will that he should do most by them.' Among the persons whom at various times he aided by his personal counsel are Thomas Scott, the biblical commentator, whom he converted, after much debate, from socinianism; William Wilberforce at the crisis of his conversion (1785); Richard Cecil [q. v.], his biographer; Claudius Buchanan [q. v.], the eminent Indian chaplain, who was converted by a sermon at St. Mary Woolnoth; young Jay, the eloquent minister at Bath, who has left a graphic account of Newton's breakfast parties; young Charles Simeon, whom he visited at Cambridge; and Hannah More, with whom he stayed at Cowslip Green. In 1786, the Handel celebration, which to his stern mind seemed a profanation of sacred things, drew from him a series of sermons on the texts in the oratorio of the 'Messiah.' In 1788 he aided Wilberforce by publishing his own experiences of the slave trade--a temperate, restrained, but ghastly recital of facts. In 1789 he published 'Apologia,' a strenuous defence of his adhesion to the church of England, and an effective defence of establishment. It was called forth apparently by charges of inconsistency, grounded on his attendance at dissenting chapels, and on his contempt for all distinctive tenets outside the evangelical creed. On 15 Dec. 1790 he suffered the loss of his wife, whom to the end he loved with what he feared was an idolatrous love. She died of cancer. He had been preparing for the blow for months in prayer, and he had strength to preach three times while she lay dead in the house, and then her funeral sermon. The anniversaries of her death were always seasons for him of solemn meditation, often marked also by very lame but touching memorial verses. Just as in the 'Narrative' he had expressed the depths of his unregenerate crimes, and in the 'Cardiphonia' his regenerate depravity, so now in his 'Letters to a Wife' (2 vols. 1793) he unfolded the innermost recesses of his life-long love. He had no dread of the world's judgment which leads most men to shrink from uttering their darkest and holiest secrets.
Newton's house was kept henceforward by his niece Eliza, daughter of George Catlett, whom he had adopted as an orphan in 1774. As his sight gradually failed he depended entirely on her devoted care of him. In 1802-3, however, she fell into a deep melancholy, which necessitated her removal to Bedlam. It is said that Newton, old and blind, daily stood under her window in the hospital, and asked his guide if she had waved her handkerchief. After her recovery she married an optician named Smith in 1805, but she remained with her husband under Newton's roof. In 1792 he was presented with the degree of D.D. by the university of New Jersey. He continued to preach till the last year of his life, although he was too blind to see his text, and the failure of his faculties grow painful. In 1806, when Cecil entreated him to give up preaching, he replied, 'I cannot stop. What! shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?' His last sermon, during which he had to be reminded of his subject, was for the sufferers from Trafalgar (1806). He died on 21 Dec. 1807, and was buried by the side of his wife in St. Mary Woolnoth. The bodies of both were removed to Olney in 1898, when St. Mary's church was cleared of all human remains. An anonymous portrait of Newton, dated 1791, is mentioned by Bromley, and a drawing in crayons, by J. Russell, R.A., is in the possession of the Church Missionary Society.
Newton's chief works are: 1. 'An Authentic Narrative of some . . . Particulars in the Life of . . . John Newton,' 1st ed. 1764; 2nd ed. 1764; 3rd ed. 1765; other editions 1775, 1780, 1792. 2. 'Omicron: Twenty-Six Letters on Religious Subjects,' 1st ed. 1774; 2nd ed. 1775. 3. 'Omicron . . . to which are added fourteen letters . . . formerly published under the signature of Vigil; and three fugitive Pieces in verse,' 1785; other editions 1793, 1798. 4. 'Olney Hymns,' 1st ed. 1779; 2nd ed. 1781; 3rd ed. 1783: 4th ed. 1787; other editions 1792, 1796, 1797, &c. 5. 'Cardiphonia, or the Utterance of the Heart,' 1st ed. 1781; frequently reprinted. Other works: 6. 'Discourses . . . intended for the Pulpit,' 1760. 7. 'Sermons, preached in the Parish Church of Olney,' 1767. 8. 'A Review of Ecclesiastical History,' 1770. 9. 'Messiah: Fifty . . . Discourses on the . . . Seriptural Passages . . . of the . . . Oratorio of Handel,' 1786. 10. 'Apologia: Four letters to a Minister of an Independent Church,' 1789. 11. 'The Christian Correspondent: Letters to Captain Clunie from the Year 1761 to 1770,' 1790. 12. 'Letters to a Wife,' 1793. Posthumous works: 13. 'The Works of Rev. John Newton,' 6 vols. 1808; new ed. 12 vols. 1821. 14. 'The Works of Rev. John Newton, 1 vol., with 'Memoir,' by R. Cecil,' 1827. 16. 'One Hundred and Twenty Letters to Rev. W. Bull from 1703 to 1805,' 1847.
[Memoir by R. Cecil, attached to Newton's Works; Bull's Life of John Newton: Letters and Conversational Remarks of John Newton, edited by John Campbell, 1808; Life of Jay of Bath (reminiscences); Bull's Memorials of Rev. William Bull, Notes and Queries, 8th ser. vi. 384; John Newton: Centenary Memorials, ad. John Callis, 1908; art. Cowper, William.]
From: Dictionary of National Biography
See also Olney Hymns;
Dictionary of Hymnology: John Newton;
Works by John Newton at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.