John Newton's Letters
Eight letters to a pastor
June 29, 1757,
Dear fellow pastor,
I would earnestly press both of us—to follow the Lord fully; to aim at a
life of self-denial; to renounce self-will; and to guard against
self-wisdom. The less we have to do with the world—the better! Unless we
watch and pray—we shall often be ensnared!
Time is precious, and opportunities once gone are gone
forever! Even by reading, and what we call studying—we may be comparatively
losers. The best way to study—is to be closely waiting upon God in humble,
secret, fervent prayer. The treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in His
hands—and He gives bountifully, without upbraiding!
Whatever we may undertake with a sincere desire to
promote His glory—we may comfortably pursue. Nothing is trivial—which is
done for Him.
Pray for me, that I may be enabled to break through the
snares of vanity which lie in my way; that I may be crucified with
Christ—and live a hidden life of faith in Him who loved me, and gave Himself
August 31, 1757.
I wish you much of that spirit which was in the Apostle, which made him
content to become all things to all men—that he might win some. I am
persuaded, that love and humility are the highest attainments
in the school of Christ, and the brightest evidences that he is indeed our
Master. If any should seem inclined to treat you with less regard, because
you are or have been a Methodist teacher, you will find forbearance,
meekness, and long-suffering, the most prevailing means to conquer their
prejudices. Our Lord has not only taught us to expect persecution from the
world, though this alone is a trial too hard for flesh and blood; but we
must look for what is much more grievous to a renewed mind—to be in some
respects slighted, censured, and misunderstood, even by our Christian
brethren; and that, perhaps, in cases where we are really striving to
promote the glory of God and the good of souls, and cannot, without the
reproach of our consciences, alter our conduct, however glad we would be to
have their approbation.
Therefore we are required, not only to resist the world,
the flesh, and the devil—but likewise to bear one another's burdens; which
plainly intimates there will be something to be borne with on all hands; and
happy indeed is he who is not offended. You may observe what unjust reports
and surmises were received, even at Jerusalem, concerning the Apostle Paul;
and it seems he was condemned unheard, and that by many thousands too, Act.
21:20-21; but we do not find he was at all ruffled, or that he sought to
retort anything upon them, though doubtless, had he been so disposed, he
might have found something to have charged them with in his turn; but he
calmly and willingly complied with everything in his power, to soften and
Let us be followers of this pattern, so far as he was a
follower of Christ; for even Christ pleased not himself. How did he bear
with the mistakes, weakness, intemperate zeal, and imprudent proposals of
his disciples while on earth! And how does he bear with the same things from
you and I, and every one of his followers now! And do we, can we think much
to bear with each other for his sake? Have we all a full remission of ten
thousand talents which we owed him, and were utterly unable to pay; and do
we wrangle among ourselves for a few pence? God forbid!
If you should be numbered among the Independents, I
advise you not to offend any of them by unnecessary singularities. I wish
you not to part with any truth, or with anything really expedient; but if
the omitting anything of an indifferent nature will obviate prejudices, and
increase a mutual confidence, why should not so easy a sacrifice be made?
Above all, my dear friend, let us keep close to the Lord in a way of prayer.
He gives wisdom that is profitable to direct. He is the wonderful counselor;
there is no teacher like Him. Why do the living seek to the dead? Why do we
weary our friends and ourselves, in running up and down, and turning over
books for advice? If we shut our eyes upon the world, and worldly things,
and raise our thoughts upwards in humility and silence—should we not often
hear the secret voice of the Spirit of God whispering to our hearts, and
pointing out to us the way of truth and peace? Have we not often gone
astray, and hurt either ourselves or our brethren, for lack of attending to
this Divine Instruction? Have we not sometimes mocked God, by pretending to
ask direction from him, when we had fixed our determination beforehand? It
is a great blessing to know that we are sincere; and next to this, to be
convinced of our insincerity, and to pray against it.
November 21, 1757.
Can you forgive so negligent a correspondent? I am indeed ashamed; but (if
that is any good excuse) I treat you no worse than my other friends.
Whenever I write, I am obliged to begin with an apology; for what with
business, and the incidental duties of every day—my time is always mortgaged
before it comes into my hands, especially as I have so little skill in
redeeming and improving it. I long to hear from you, and I long to see you.
I have mislaid your letter, and cannot remember the particulars. In general,
I remember you were well, and going on comfortably in your work; which was
matter of joy to me; and my poor prayers are for you, that the Lord may own
and prosper you more and more.
The two great points we are called to pursue in this
sinful divided world, are peace and holiness. I hope you are much in the
study of them. These are the peculiar characteristics of a disciple of
Jesus; they are the richest part of the enjoyments of heaven. And so far as
they are received into the heart, they bring down heaven upon earth; and
they are more inseparably connected between themselves than some of us are
The longer I live, the more I see of the vanity and the
sinfulness of our unchristian disputes. They eat up the very vitals
of religion. I grieve to think how often I have lost my time and my temper
that way, in presuming to regulate the vineyards of others, when I have
neglected my own; when the beam in my own eye has so contracted my sight,
that I could discern nothing but the mote in my neighbor's. I am now
desirous to choose a better part. Could I speak the publican's words with a
proper feeling, I wish not for the tongue of men or angels to fight about
notions or sentiments. I allow that every branch of Gospel truth is
precious, that errors are abounding, and that it is our duty to bear an
honest testimony to what the Lord has enabled us to find comfort in, and to
instruct with meekness such as are willing to be instructed; but I cannot
see it my duty, nay, I believe it would be my sin—to attempt to beat my
notions into other people's heads. Too often I have attempted it in time
past; but I now judge, that both my zeal and my weapons were carnal.
When our dear Lord questioned Peter, after his fall and
recovery, he did not say, Are you wise, learned, and eloquent? Are you
clear, and sound, and orthodox? But this only, "Do you love me?" An
answer to this was sufficient then—why not now? Any other answer we may
believe would have been insufficient then. If Peter had made the most
pompous confession of his faith and sentiments, still the first question
would have recurred, "Do you love me?" This is a Scripture precedent.
Happy the preacher, whoever he be, my heart and my prayers are with him—who
can honestly and steadily appropriate Peter's answer! Such a man, I say, I
am ready to hear, though he should be as much mistaken in some points as
Peter afterwards appears to have been in others.
What a pity it is, that Christians in succeeding ages
should think the constraining force of the love of Christ too weak,
and suppose the end better answered by forms, subscriptions, and questions
of their own devising! I cannot acquit even those churches who judge
themselves nearest the primitive rule in this respect. Alas! will-worship
and presumption may creep into the best external forms. But the misfortune
both in churches and private Christians is, that we are too prone rather to
compare ourselves with others—rather than to judge by the Scriptures. And
while each can see that they give not into the errors and mistakes of the
opposite party, both are ready to conclude that they are right; and thus it
happens, that an attachment to a supposed Gospel-order will recommend
a man sooner and farther to some churches, than an eminency of Gospel
practice. This, like a worm at the root, has nipped the graces, and
hindered the usefulness, of many a valuable man; and those who change sides
and opinions are the most liable to it. For the pride of our heart
insensibly prompts us to cast about far and near for arguments to justify
our own behavior, and makes us too ready to hold the opinions we have taken
up to the very extreme, that those among whom we are newly come may not
suspect our sincerity.
In a word, let us endeavor to keep close to God, to be
much in prayer, and to watch carefully over our hearts. The secret of the
Lord is with those who fear him, and who wait on him continually; to these
he will show his covenant, not notional—but experimentally. A few minutes of
the Spirit's teaching will furnish us with more real useful knowledge, than
toiling through whole folios of commentators and expositors! They are useful
in their places, and are not to be undervalued by those who can perhaps in
general do better without them. But it will be our wisdom to deal less with
the streams, and be more close in applying to the fountain head.
The Scripture itself, and the Spirit of God, are the best and the only
sufficient expositors of Scripture. Whatever men have valuable in their
writings, they got it from hence; and the way is as open to us as to any of
them. There is nothing required but a teachable humble spirit; and
learning, as it is commonly called, is not necessary in order to this. I
commend you to the grace of God.
January 10, 1760.
I have procured Cennick's sermons—they are in my judgment sound and sweet. O
that you and I had a double portion of that spirit and unction which is in
them! Come, let us not despair; the fountain is as full and as free as
ever—precious fountain, ever flowing with blood and water, milk and wine!
This is the stream which heals the wounded, refreshes the weary, satisfies
the hungry, strengthens the weak, and confirms the strong. It opens the eyes
of the blind, softens the heart of stone, teaches the dumb to sing, and
enables the lame and paralytic to walk, to leap, to run, to fly, to mount up
with eagle's wings! A taste of this stream raises earth to heaven—and brings
down heaven upon earth. Nor is it a fountain only; it is a universal
blessing, and assumes a variety of shapes to suit itself to our needs. It is
a sun, a shield, a garment, a shade, a banner, a refuge. It is bread, the
true bread, the very staff of life. It is life itself, immortal, eternal
The cross of Jesus Christ, my Lord,
Is food and medicine, shield and sword.
Take that for your motto; wear it in your heart; keep it
in your eye; have it often in your mouth, until you can find something
better. The cross of Christ is the tree of life and the tree of
knowledge combined. Blessed be God! There is neither prohibition nor
flaming sword to keep us back; but it stands like a tree by the wayside,
which affords its shade to every passenger without distinction. Watch and
pray. We live in a sifting time. Error gains ground every day. May the name
and love of our Savior Jesus keep us and all his people!
November 15, 1760.
If your visit should be delayed, let me have a letter. I want
either good news or good advice; to hear that your soul prospers, or to
receive something that may quicken my own soul. The Apostle says, "You know
the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ." Alas! we know how to say something
about it—but how faint and feeble are our real perceptions of it! Our
love to him is the proof and measure—of what we know of his love to us.
Surely, then, we are mere children in this kind of knowledge, and every
other kind is vain. What would we think of a man who would neglect his
business, family, and all the comforts of life, that he might study the
Chinese language; though he knows beforehand he should never be able to
attain it, nor ever find occasion or opportunity to use it? The pursuit of
every branch of knowledge that is not closely connected with the one
thing needful, is no less ridiculous.
You know something of our friend Mrs. B. She has been
more than a month confined to her bed, and I believe her next remove will be
to her coffin! The Lord has done great things for her. Though she has been a
serious exemplary person all her life, when the prospect of death presented,
she began to cry out earnestly, "What shall I do to be saved?" But her
solicitude is at an end. She has seen the salvation of God, and now for the
most part rejoices in something more than hope. This you will account good
news, I am sure. Let it be your encouragement and mine. The Lord's arm is
not shortened, nor is his presence removed. He is near us still, though we
perceive him not. May he guide you with his eye in all your public and
private concerns, and may he in particular bless our communications to our
July 29, 1761.
Are the quarrels made up? Tell those who know what communion with Jesus is
worth, that they will never be able to maintain it, if they give way to the
workings of pride, jealousy, and anger. This will provoke the Lord to leave
them dry; to command the clouds of his grace that they rain no showers of
blessing upon them. These things are sure signs of a low frame, and a sure
way to keep it so. Could they be prevailed upon, from a sense of the
pardoning love of God to their own souls, to forgive each other as the Lord
forgives us—freely, fully, without condition and without reserve, they would
find this like breaking down a stone wall, which has hitherto shut up their
prayers from the Lord's ears, and shut out his blessing from filling their
hearts. Tell them, I hope to hear that all animosities, little and big, are
buried by mutual consent in the Redeemer's grave.
Alas! the people of God have enemies enough. Why then
will they weaken their own hands? Why will they help their enemies to pull
down the Lord's work? Why will they grieve those who wish them well, cause
the weak to stumble, the wicked to rejoice, and bring a reproach upon their
holy profession? Indeed this is no light matter; I wish it may not lead them
to something worse; I wish they may be wise in time, lest Satan gain further
advantage over them, and draw them to something that shall make them (as
David did) roar under the pains of broken bones. But I must break off.
May God give you wisdom, faithfulness, and patience. Take
care that you do not catch an angry spirit yourself, while you aim to
suppress it in others; this will spoil all, and you will exhort, advise, and
weep in vain. May you rather be an example and pattern to the
flock. And in this view, be not surprised if you yourself meet some harsh
usage; rather rejoice, that you will thereby have an opportunity to
exemplify your own rules, and to convince your people, that what you
recommend to them—you do not speak by rote—but from the experience of your
One end why our Lord was tempted was for the
encouragement of his poor followers, that they might know him to be a High
Priest suited to them, having had a fellow-feeling in their distresses. For
the like reason, he appoints his ministers to be sorely exercised both from
without and within, that they may sympathize with their flock, and know in
their own hearts the deceitfulness of sin, the infirmities of the flesh, and
the way in which the Lord supports and bears with all that trust in him.
Therefore be not discouraged; usefulness and trials, comforts and crosses,
strength and exercise—all go together. But remember Him has said, "I will
never leave you nor forsake you. Be you faithful unto death, and I will give
you a crown of life!" When you get to heaven, you will not complain of the
difficult way by which the Lord brought you. Farewell. Pray for us.
Dec. 14, 1761.
I pray the Lord to accompany you; but cannot help fearing you go on too
fast. If you have not (as I am sure you ought not) made an absolute
promise—but only conditional one—you need not be so solicitous. Depend upon
it, when the Lord is pleased to remove you, he will send one to supply your
place. I am grieved that your mind is so set upon a step, which I fear will
occasion many inconveniences to a people who have deserved your best regard.
Others may speak you fairer—but none wishes you better than myself.
Therefore I hope you allow me to speak my mind plainly, and believe that it
is no pleasure to me to oppose your inclinations. As to your saying they
will take no denial, it has no weight with me. Had they asked what you were
exceedingly averse to, you would soon have expressed yourself so as to
convince them it was to no purpose to urge you; but they saw something in
your manner or language that encouraged them; they saw the proposal was
agreeable to you, that you were not at all unwilling to exchange your old
friends for new ones; and this is the reason they would take no denial. If
you should live to see those who are most forward in pressing you, become
the first to discourage you, you will think seriously of my words.
If I thought my advice would prevail, it would be this.
Call the people together, and desire them (if possible) to forget you ever
intended to depart from them; and promise not to think of a removal, until
the Lord shall make your way so clear, that even they shall have nothing
reasonable to object against it. You may keep your word with your other
friends too; for when a proper person shall offer, as likely to please and
satisfy the people as yourself, I will give my hearty consent to your
Consider what it is you would have in your office—but
maintenance, acceptance, and success. Have you not those where you are? Are
you sure of having them where you are going? Are you sure the Spirit of God
(without which you will do nothing) will be with you there, as he has been
with you hitherto? Perhaps if you act in your own spirit—you may find as
great a change as Samson. I am ready to weep when I think what difficulties
were surmounted to accomplish your ordination; and now, when the people
thought themselves fixed—that you should so soon disappoint them!
Feb. 15, 1762.
I have been often thinking of you since your removal, and was glad to
receive your letter today. I hope you will still go on to find more and more
encouragement to believe, that the Lord has disposed and led you to the step
you have taken. For though I wrote with the greatest plainness and
earnestness, and would, if in my power, have prevented it while under
deliberation—yet, now it is done, and past recall—I would rather help than
dishearten you. Indeed, I cannot say that my view of the affair is yet
The best way not to be cast down hereafter—is not to be
too expectant at first. You know there is something pleasing in
novelty; as yet you are new to them—and they to you. I pray God that you
may find as cordial a regard from them as at present, when you have been
with them as many years as in the place you came from. And if you have grace
to be watchful and prayerful, all will be well; for we serve a gracious
Master, who knows how to over-rule even our mistakes to his glory and our
Yet I observe that when we do wrong, sooner or later we
smart for our indiscretion; perhaps many years afterwards. After we have
seen and confessed our fault, and received repeated proofs of pardoning
love, as to the guilt—yet chastisement, to remind us more sensibly of our
having done amiss, will generally find us out. So it was with David,
in the matter of Uriah. The Lord put away his sin, healed his broken bones,
and restored unto him the light of his countenance—yet many troubles, in
consequence of this affair, followed one upon another, until at length (many
years afterwards) he was driven from Jerusalem by his own son! So it was
with Jacob. He dealt deceitfully with his brother Esau.
Notwithstanding this, the Lord appeared to him and blessed him, gave him
comfortable promises, and revealed himself to him from time to time—yet,
after an interval of twenty years, his fault was brought afresh to his
remembrance, and his heart trembled within him when he heard his brother was
coming with armed men to meet him!
And thus I have found it in my own experience. Things
which I had forgotten a long while have been brought to my mind by
providential dispensations which I little expected; but the first rise of
which I have been able to trace far back, and forced to confess, that the
Lord is indeed He who judges the heart and tries the thoughts. I hint this
for your caution. You know best upon what grounds you have proceeded; but if
(though I do not affirm it, I hope otherwise), I say, if you have acted too
much in your own spirit, been too hasty and precipitate; if you have not
been sufficiently tender of your people, nor thoughtful of the consequences
which your departure will probably involve them in; if you were impatient
under the Lord's hand, and, instead of waiting his time and way of removing
the trials and difficulties you found—you have ventured upon an attempt to
free and mend yourself. I say, if any of these things have mixed with your
determinations, something will fall out to show you your fault. Either you
will not find the success you hope for—or friends will grow cold—or enemies
and difficulties you dream not of, will present themselves—or your own mind
will alter, so as what seems now most pleasing will afford you little
pleasure. Yet, though I write thus, I do not mean (as I said before) to
discourage you—but that you may be forewarned, humble, and watchful. If you
should at any time have a different view of things, you may take comfort
from the instances I have mentioned.
The trials of David and Jacob were sharp; but they were
short, and they proved to their advantage, put them upon acts of humiliation
and prayer, and ended in a double blessing. Nothing can harm us, which
quickens our earnestness and frequency in applying to a Throne of Grace!
Only trust the Lord and keep close to him—and all that befalls you shall be
for good. Temptations end in victory; troubles prove an
increase of consolation; yes, our very falls and failings tend
to increase our spiritual wisdom; and give us a greater knowledge of Satan's
devices—and make us more habitually upon our guard against them. Happy case
of the believer in Jesus! When bitten by the fiery serpent he needs not go
far for a remedy; he has only to look to a bleeding Savior, and be healed.
I think one great advantage that attends a removal into a
new place is, that it gives an easy opportunity of forming a new plan, and
breaking off any poor habits which we have found inconvenient, and yet
perhaps could not so readily lay aside, where our customs and acquaintance
had been long formed. I earnestly recommend to you to reflect, if you cannot
recollect some things which you have hitherto omitted, which may properly be
now taken up; some things formerly allowed, which may now with ease and
convenience be laid aside. I only give the hint in general; for I have
nothing in particular to charge you with.
I recommend to you to be very choice of your time,
especially the beginning of the day. Let your morning hours be devoted to
prayer, reading, and study; and do not allow the importunity of friends to
rob you of the hours before noon, without a just necessity. And if you
accustom yourself to rise early in the morning, you will find a great
advantage. Be careful to avoid losing your thoughts, whether in books or
otherwise, upon any subjects which are not of a direct subservience to your
great design, until towards dinner time. The afternoon is not so favorable
to study. This is a proper time for paying and receiving visits, conversing
among your friends, or unbending with a book of instructive entertainment,
such as history, etc., which may increase your general knowledge, without a
great confinement of your attention; but let the morning hours be sacred.
I think you would likewise find advantage in using your
pen more. Write short notes upon the Scriptures you read, or
transcribe the labors of others; make extracts from your favorite authors,
especially those who, besides a fund of spiritual and evangelical matter,
have a happy talent of expressing their thoughts in a clear and lively, or
moving manner. You would find a continued exercise in this way would be
greatly useful to form your own style, and help your delivery and memory;
you would become insensibly master of their thoughts, and find it
more easy to express yourself justly and clearly.
What we only read we easily lose—but what we commit to
paper is not so soon forgotten. Especially remember (what you well know—but
we cannot too often remind each other), that frequent secret prayer is
the life of all we do. If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, and
it shall be given—but all our diligence will fail—if we are remiss in this
Keep close to the work you have undertaken; and endeavor
to avoid anything that looks like ostentation, or a desire to be taken
notice of. You see I advise you with the freedom of a friend who loves you,
and longs to see your work and your soul prosper.
You will, I doubt not, endeavor to promote the practice
of frequent prayer in the houses that receive you. I look upon prayer
meetings as the most profitable exercises (excepting the public preaching)
in which Christians can engage. They have a direct tendency to kill a
worldly trifling spirit, to draw down a Divine blessing upon all our
concerns, resolve differences, and enkindle (at least to maintain) the flame
of Divine love among brethren. But I need not tell you the advantages; you
know them. I only would exhort you; and the rather as I find in my own case,
the principal cause of my leanness and unfruitfulness is owing to an
unaccountable backwardness to pray. I can write, or read, or converse, or
hear, with a ready will—but prayer is more spiritual and inward than
any of these; and the more spiritual any duty is—the more my carnal heart is
apt to draw aside from it. May the Lord pour forth his precious spirit of
prayer and supplication in both our hearts!
I am not well pleased with the account you give of so
many dry bones. It increases my wonder, that you could so readily exchange
so much plump flesh and blood as you had about you—for a parcel of
skeletons. I wish they may not haunt you, and disturb your peace! I
wish these same dry bones do not prove thorns in your sides and in
your eyes. You say, now you have to pray, and prophesy, and wait for the
four winds to come and put life into these bones. God grant that your
prayers may be answered. But if I knew a man who possessed a field in a
tolerable soil, which had afforded him some increase every year; and if this
man, after having bestowed seven years' labor in cultivating, weeding,
fertilizing, fencing, etc.—just when he has brought his ground (in his
neighbor's judgment) into good order, and might reasonably hope for larger
crops than he had ever yet seen, should suddenly forego all his advantages,
leave his good seed for the birds to eat, pull up the young fences which
cost him so much pains to plant—and all this for the sake of making a new
experiment upon the top of a mountain; though I might heartily wish him
great success, I could not honestly give him great encouragement. You have
parted with that for a trifle, which in my eye seems an inestimable jewel; I
mean the hearts and affections of an enlightened people! This appears to me
one of the greatest honors and greatest pleasures a faithful minister can
possess, and which many faithful and eminent ministers have never been able
to obtain. This gave you a vast advantage. Your gift was more acceptable
there than that of any other person, and more than you will probably find
elsewhere. For I cannot make a comparison between the hasty approbation of a
few, whose eyes are but beginning to open, and their affections and passions
warm, so that they must, if possible, have the man that first catches their
attention; I say, I cannot think this worthy to be compared to the regard of
a people who understood the Gospel, were able to judge of men and doctrines,
and had trial of you for so many years.
It is indeed much to your honor (it proves that you were
faithful, diligent, and exemplary) that the people proved so attached to
you—but that you should tear yourself from them, when they so dearly loved
you, and so much needed you—this has made all your friends in these parts to
wonder, and your enemies to rejoice; and I, alas! know not what to answer in
your behalf to either. Say not, "I hate this Micaiah, for he prophesies
not good of me—but evil;" but allow me the privilege of a friend. My
heart is full when I think of what has happened, and what will probably be
the consequence. In few words, I am strongly persuaded you have taken an
unadvised step, and would therefore prepare you for the inconvenience and
uneasiness you may probably meet with. And if I am (as I desire I may prove)
mistaken, my advice will do no harm; you will need something to balance the
caresses and success you meet with.
We would be very glad to see you, and hope you will take
your measures, when you do come, to lengthen your usual stay, in proportion
to the difference of the distance. Pray for us.