N is for Newton
Far too often we detach a person’s theology from the life that they have led. Their experiences ought to form the catalyst out of which their theological positions have grown. For example, there is no more interesting tale than that of John Newton. He lived primarily in 18th century England. We know him best as the author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
This hymn was probably composed between 1760 and 1770, yet it is just as cherished today. It has been used by God to speak to the hearts of untold millions of people. It can be found set to traditional music of piano and organ or to drums and rock guitars. It has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Randy Travis, The Vienna Boys Choir, Petra, The Charlie Daniels Band, Joan Baez, and Alabama, just to name a few – quite an eclectic musical mix. Through this one song, Newton has touched people from every walk of life, but how many of us know the story behind this great song and its composer’s life?
Newton was born in 1725. When he was 11 years old, he went to sea with his father who was commander of a merchant ship. He made many such journeys over the next 8 years until his father retired. He was then made to serve aboard a man-of-war and deserted it, so he was captured and publicly flogged for his desertion. A major demotion followed the punishment. He requested a transfer and was given a post on a slave ship. From there he became the servant of a slave trader and was horrifically mistreated. In time, his career did evolve and he became the captain of his own ship which was engaged in the business of slave trafficking.
At this point in time, Newton had not thought much about Christianity and his ethics declared that vividly. On a homeward journey, he ran into a terrifying storm and feared that they would not make it out alive. He experienced what would later be termed “great deliverance” and exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us!” When things calmed down, he went to his cabin to reflect upon what he had said. It was his profound understanding that the Lord had used that storm and their subsequent deliverance to get hold of his life. He was, therefore, converted to wonderful faith of Christ. His personal life as a sinner and his conversion were due solely to the grace of God is the subject of this great hymn. It was a profound and deeply personal writing.
Within the next few years, he would depart from the slave trade, but that was just the first of many changes in his life. After an illness, he gave up sailing altogether. In 1750, he married Mary Catlett about the same time that his Christian passion drove him to pursue self-study of a number of subjects including Latin. He also met and became a close friend of George Whitfield, the well-known Calvinistic Methodist minister of note in the Great Awakening. He became a disciple of Whitfield’s as well as a friend of John Wesley. During this time, Newton added Greek and Hebrew to his studies. Its inspiring to note that Newton volunteered to study the languages that many seminary students have to be practically forced to learn.
Newton was a theologian who changed the world.
Without belaboring the story, Newton eventually became a pastor. He accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. The well-known poet William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) settled in Olney and the two of them became great friends. Cowper became a kind of assistant to Newton and they began to write hymns together. In 1779, they published their first hymn book together which contained 68 compositions by Cowper and 280 by Newton. This was a major contribution to hymnody. An original copy of this hymnbook is held for examination today at the University of Texas. Throughout his ministry, whether in Olney or other areas, his preaching drew very large crowds.
Newton’s life spanned from slave trader to abolitionist. He was quiet about the slave trade for many years after retirement, but in 1788, he wrote a pamphlet titled “Thoughts upon the Slave Trade.” He described the horrible conditions that slaves lived in upon those ships. In fact, the majority of what we know concerning 18th century slave trade has come to us from the writings of Newton. One direct quote from this pamphlet will give an idea of God’s work in his life. “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.” He became an ally of William Wilberforce who was a strong advocate and campaigner of the abolitionist movement. (We’ll talk more about Wilberforce later.)
What has any of this to do with theology? When you look at a person’s music, you gain a window into their theology. Worship, particularly musical worship, should be a vehicle for theology. Just looking at “Amazing Grace,” there is a rich theology embodied in a song that we too easily take for granted. Other hymns of note include “Afflictions though they seem severe,” “Approach My Soul, the Mercy Seat” (the original Mercy Seat song), “By Faith in Christ I Walk With God,” “Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders!,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “I Asked the Lord That I Should Grow,” and “Precious Bible! What a Treasure!” This represents quite a systematic theology via hymnody. He wrote on creation, the fall, the nature of God, the person of Christ, salvation, sanctification, the church, spiritual warfare, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, and the last things.
His worship songs are not the only area where Newton interacts with theology. He wrote quite a few books, pamphlets, and articles as well. A general perusal will give a good idea of his theological thrust: Joy and Peace in Believing, The Doctrines of Election and Final Perseverance, The Right Use of the Law, The Lord Reigns!, The Vanity of the World, and Addressing the Unconverted. There are many more titles but this suffices to give an idea of his contribution to the area of theology. What a blessing that you can find almost all of these materials online at no cost! One of the best sources for online Newton study is www.monergism.com.
In terms of practical application, Newton’s life spans the great depths of sin to the infinite riches of Christ. He showed what it is to be gloriously called, chosen, and redeemed. His theology was declared through his music, his writing, his pastorate, his scholarship, and, most of all, through his changed life.