John Newton's Letters

Seven letters to a Christian friend

November, 1775.
My dear Madam,
Too much of that impatience which you speak of, towards those who differ from us in some religious sentiments, is observable on all sides. I do not consider it as the fault of a few individuals, or of this or that party, so much as the effect of that inherent imperfection which is common to our whole race. Anger and scorn are equally unfitting in those who profess to be followers of the meek and lowly Jesus, and who acknowledge themselves to be both sinful and fallible; but too often something of this leaven will be found cleaving to the best characters, and mixed with honest endeavors to serve the best cause.

But thus it was from the beginning; and we have reason to confess that we are no better than the Apostles were, who, though they meant well, manifested once and again a wrong spirit in their zeal; Luke 9:54. Observation and experience contribute, by the grace of God, gradually to soften and sweeten our spirits; but then there will always be ground for mutual forbearance and mutual forgiveness on this head.

However, so far as I may judge of myself, I think this hastiness is not my most besetting sin. I am not indeed an advocate for that indifference and lukewarmness to the truths of God, which seem to constitute the candor many plead for in the present day. But while I desire to hold fast the sound doctrines of the Gospel towards the persons of my fellow-creatures, I wish to exercise all moderation and benevolence. Protestants or Papists, Socinians or Deists, Jews, Samaritans, or Mohammedans, all are my neighbors; they have all a claim upon me for the common offices of humanity.

As to religion, they cannot all be right; nor may I compliment them by allowing that the differences between us are but trivial, when I believe and know they are important. But I am not to expect others to see with my eyes! I am deeply convinced of the truth of John the Baptist's aphorism in John 3:27, "A man can receive nothing—except it be given him from Heaven." I well know, that the little measure of knowledge I have obtained in the things of God—has not been owing to my own wisdom and teachableness, but to God's goodness. Nor did I learn everything all at once—God has been pleased to exercise much patience and long-suffering towards me, for the past twenty-seven years—since He first gave me a desire of learning from Himself. He has graciously accommodated Himself to my weakness, borne with my mistakes, and helped me through innumerable prejudices, which, but for His mercy, would have been insuperable hindrances! I have therefore no right to be angry, impatient, or censorious to others, especially as I have still much to learn, and am so poorly influenced by what I seem to know!

I am weary of theological controversies and disputes, and desire to choose for myself, and to point out to others, Mary's part—to sit at Jesus' feet, and to hear his words. And, blessed be his name! So far as I have learned from him, I am favored with a comfortable certainty; I know whom I have believed, and am no longer tossed about by the various winds and tides of opinions, by which I see many are dashed one against the other. But I cannot, I must not, I dare not, be contentious. Only, as a witness for God, I am ready to bear my simple testimony to what I have known of his truth, whenever I am properly called to it.

I agree with you, that some accounted evangelical teachers have too much confined themselves to a few leading and favorite topics. I think this a fault; and believe, when it is constantly so, the auditors are deprived of much edification, which they might receive from a more judicious and comprehensive plan. The whole Scripture, as it consists of histories, prophecies, doctrines, precepts, promises, exhortations, admonitions, encouragements, and reproofs, is the proper subject of the Gospel ministry—and every part should in its place be attended to; yet so as that, in every part we exhibit—Jesus should be the capital figure! In Him the prophecies are fulfilled, and the promises established. In Him, in a way of type and emblem, the most important parts of Scripture history have an express reference. From Him alone—we can receive that life, strength, and encouragement, which are necessary to make obedience either pleasing or practical.

Where there is true spiritual faith in the heart, and in exercise, I believe a person will not so much need a detail of what he is to practice—as to be often greatly at a loss without it. Our Savior's commandments are plain and clear in themselves; and that love which springs from faith is the best casuist and commentator to apply and enforce them!

You are pleased to say, "Forgive me if I transgress; I know the place whereon I stand is holy ground." Permit me to assure you, my dear madam, that were I, which I am not, a person of some importance, you would run no hazard of offending me by controverting any of my sentiments. I hold none (knowingly) which I am not willing to submit to Scriptural examination; nor am I afraid of offending you by speaking freely, when you point out my way. I would wrong you, if I thought to please you by palliating or disguising the sentiments of my heart; and if I attempted to do so, you would see through the design, and despise it. There may perhaps be an improper manner of chiming upon the name of Jesus, and I am not for vindicating any impropriety; yet, could I feel what I ought to mean when I pronounce that name, I would not fear mentioning it too often. I am afraid of no excess in thinking highly of it, because I read it is the will of God, that all men should honor the Son as they honor the Father.

Labored explications of the Trinity I always avoid. I am afraid of darkening counsel by words without knowledge. Scripture, and even reason assures me, there is but one God, whose name alone is Jehovah. Scripture likewise assures me, that Christ is God, that Jesus is Jehovah. I cannot say that reason assents with equal readiness to this proposition as to the former. But admitting what the Scripture teaches concerning the evil of sin, the depravity of human nature, the method of salvation, and the offices of the Savior; admitting that God has purposed to glorify, not his mercy only, but his justice—in the work of redemption; that the blood shed upon the cross is a proper, and adequate atonement for sin; and that the Redeemer is at present the Shepherd of all who believe in Him. We depend upon Him—and He gives us the effectual help which we need. He is intimately acquainted with us—and knows every thought and intent of our hearts. He has His eye always upon us. His ear always open us. His arm ever stretched out for our relief. We can receive nothing—but what He bestows. We can do nothing—but as He enables us. Nor can we stand a moment—but as He upholds us!

Admitting these and the like promises, with which the Word of God abounds, reason must allow, whatever difficulties may attend the thought, that only he who is God over all, blessed forever, is able or worthy to execute this complicated plan, every part of which requires the exertion of infinite wisdom and almighty power; nor am I able to form any clear, satisfactory, comfortable thoughts of God, suited to awaken my love or engage my trust, but as he has been pleased to reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe with the Apostle, that God was once manifested in the flesh upon earth; and that he is now manifested in the flesh in heaven; and that the worship, not only of redeemed sinners, but of the holy angels, is addressed to the Lamb who was slain, and who, in that nature in which he suffered, now exercises universal dominion, and has the government of heaven, earth, and hell, upon his shoulders. This truth is the foundation upon which my hope is built, the fountain from whence I derive all my strength and consolation, and my only encouragement for venturing to the Throne of Grace, for grace to help in time of need.

Until God in human flesh I see,
My thoughts no comfort find;
The holy, just, and sacred Three
Are terrors to my mind.

But if Immanuel's face appear,
My hope, my joy begins;
His name forbids my slavish fear,
His grace removes our sins.

I am, however, free to confess to you, that, through the pride and unbelief remaining in my heart, and the power of Satan's temptations, there are seasons when I find no small perplexity and evil reasoning upon this high point. But it is so absolutely essential to my peace, that I cannot part with it; for I cannot give it up, without giving up all hope of salvation on the one hand, and giving up the Bible, as an unmeaning, contradictory fable, on the other hand. And, through mercy, for the most part, when I am in my right mind, I am as fully persuaded of this truth—as I am of my own existence! But from the exercises I have had about it, I have learned to subscribe to the Apostle's declaration, that "no man can say that Jesus Christ is Lord—but by the Holy Spirit." I am well satisfied it will not be a burden to me at the hour of death, nor be laid to my charge at the day of judgment—that I have thought too highly of Jesus, expected too much from him myself, or labored too much in commending and setting him forth to others, as the Alpha and Omega, the true God and eternal life. On the contrary, alas! alas! my guilt and grief are—that my thoughts of him are so faint, so infrequent, and my commendations of him—so lamentably cold and disproportionate to what they ought to be.

I know not whose letters are rapturous—but I wish mine were more so—not that I am a friend to ungrounded sallies of imagination, flights of carnal passions, or heat without light. But it would be amazing to me, were I not aware of human depravity (of which I consider this as one of the most striking proofs), that those who have any good hope of a saving interest in the Gospel salvation, do not find their hearts (as Dr. Watts expresses it) all on fire; and that their very looks do not express a transport of admiration, gratitude, and love, when they consider from what misery they are redeemed, to what happiness they are called, and what a price was paid for their souls. I wish to be more like the Apostle Paul in this respect, who, though he often forms and compounds new words, seems at a loss for any that could suitably describe the emotions of his heart.

I am persuaded you would not object to the just fervors of Scriptural devotion. But this holy flame can seldom be found unsullied in the present life. The temper, constitution, and infirmities of individuals will mix more or less with what they say or do. Allowances must be made for such things in the present state of infirmity—for who can hope to be perfectly free from them! Yet—if the heart is right with God, and sincerely affected with the wonders of redeeming love, our gracious High Priest, who knows our weakness, pities and pardons what is amiss, accepts our poor efforts, and gradually teaches us to discern and avoid what is blamable.

The work of grace, in its first stages, I sometimes compare to the lighting of a fire, where for a while there is abundance of smoke—but it burns clearer and clearer. There is often, both in letters and books, what might be very well omitted; but if a love to God and souls is the leading principle, I pass as gentle censure upon the rest as I can, and apply to some eccentric expressions, what Mr. Prior somewhere says of our civil dissensions in this land of liberty, "A bad effect—but from a noble cause."


February 16, 1776.
My dear Madam,
It gave me great comfort to find, that what I wrote concerning the divine character of Jesus, as God manifest in the flesh, met with your approbation. This doctrine is, in my view, the great foundation-stone upon which all true religion is built. But, alas! in the present day, it is the stumbling stone and rock of offense, upon which too many, fondly presuming upon their own wisdom, fall and are broken! I am so far from wondering that any should doubt of it, that I am firmly persuaded none can truly believe it, however plainly set forth in Scripture, unless it is revealed to them from Heaven; or, in the Apostle's words, that "no one can call Jesus Christ Lord—but by the Holy Spirit."

There are many who think they believe it, because they have taken it for granted, and never attentively considered the difficulties with which it is attended in the eye of fallen reason. Judging by natural light, it seems impossible to believe that the title of the true God and eternal life, should properly belong to that despised Man who hung dead upon the cross, exposed to the insults of his cruel enemies. I know nothing that can obviate the objections the reasoning mind is ready to form against it—but a real conviction of the sinfulness of sin, and the state of a sinner as exposed to the curse of the Holy Law, and destitute of every plea and hope in himself.

Then the necessity of a Redeemer, and the necessity of this Redeemer's being Almighty, is seen and felt, with an evidence which bears down all opposition; for neither the efficacy of his atonement and intercession, nor his sufficiency to guide, save, protect, and feed those who trust in him, can be conceived of without it. When the eyes of the understanding are opened, the soul made acquainted with and attentive to its own state and needs—he who runs may read this truth; not in a few detached texts of a dubious import, and liable to be twisted and tortured by the arts of criticism—but as interwoven in the very frame and texture of the Bible, and written, as with a sun-beam, throughout the principal parts both of the Old and New Testament.

If Christ is the shepherd and the husband of his people under the Gospel, and if his coming into the world did not abridge those who feared God of the privileges they were entitled to before his appearance, it follows, by undeniable consequence, "that he is God over all blessed forever." For David tell us, that his shepherd was Jehovah; and the husband of the Old Testament church was the Maker and God of the whole earth, the Holy One of Israel, whose name is the Lord Almighty; Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 54:8 with Isaiah 47:4. I agree with you, Madam, that among the many attempts which have been made to prove and illustrate the Scripture doctrine—that the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, are one God—there have been many injudicious, unwarrantable things advanced, which have perplexed instead of instructing, and of which the enemies of the truth have known how to make their advantage. However, there have been tracts upon these sublime subjects which have been written with judgment and an unction, and I believe attended with a blessing. I seem to prefer Mr. Jones's book on the Trinity to any I have seen, because he does little more than state some of the Scripture evidence for it, and draws his inferences briefly and plainly; though even he has admitted a few texts, which may perhaps be thought not quite full to the point; and he has certainly omitted several of the most express and strongest testimonies.

The best and happiest proof of all, that this doctrine is true in itself and true to us—is the experience of its effects. They who know His name will put their trust in Him. Those who are rightly impressed with His astonishing condescension and love, in emptying himself, and submitting to the death of the cross for our sakes—will find themselves under a sweet constraint to love him again, and will feel a little of that emotion of heart which the Apostle expresses in that lively passage, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Gal. 6:14. The knowledge of Christ crucified removes the false appearances by which we have been too long cheated, and shows us the men and the things, the spirit, customs, and maxims of the world—in their just light.

Were I perfectly master of myself and my subject, I would never adduce any text in proof of a doctrine or assertion from the pulpit, which was not direct and conclusive; because if a text is pressed into an argument to which it has no proper relation, it rather encumbers than supports it, and raises a suspicion that the cause is weak, and better testimonies in its favor cannot be obtained. Some misapplications of this kind have been so long in use, that they pass pretty current, though, if brought to the assay, they would be found not quite sterling; but I endeavor to avoid them to the best of my judgment.

Thus, for instance, I have often heard, Rom. 14:23; "whatever is not of faith is sin," quoted to prove, that without a principle of saving faith we can perform nothing acceptable to God; whereas it seems clear from the context, that faith is there used in another sense, and signifies a firm persuasion of mind respecting the lawfulness of the action. However, I doubt not but the proposition in itself is strictly true in the other sense, if considered detached from the connection in which it stands; but I should rather choose to prove it from other passages, where it is directly affirmed, as Heb. 11:6; Mat. 12:33.

In such cases, I think hearers should be careful not to be prejudiced against a doctrine, merely because it is not well supported; for perhaps it is capable of solid proof, though the preacher was not so happy as to hit upon that which was most suitable; and extempore preachers may sometimes hope for a little allowance upon this head, from the more candid part of their auditory, and not be made offenders for an inadvertence which they cannot perhaps always avoid in the hurry of speaking.

With respect to the application of some passages in the Old Testament to our Lord and Savior, I hold it safest to keep close to the specimens the Apostles have given us, and I would venture with caution if I go beyond their line; yet it is probable they have only given us a specimen, and that there are a great number of passages which have a direct reference to Gospel truths, though we may run some hazard in making out the allusion. If Paul had not gone before me, I would have hesitated to assert that the prohibition, "You shall not muzzle the ox that treads out the corn," was given, not upon the account of oxen—but altogether for our sakes. Nor should I without his assistance have found out, that the history of Sarah and Hagar was a designed allegory, to set forth the difference between the Law and Gospel covenants. Therefore, when I hear ministers tracing some other allusions, I cannot be always sure that they push them too far, though perhaps they are not quite satisfactory to my judgment; for it may be, they have a farther insight into the meaning of the verses than myself.

And I think Scriptures may be sometimes used to advantage, by way of accommodation in popular discourses, and in something of a different sense from what they bear in the place where they stand, provided they are not alleged as proofs—but only to illustrate a truth already proved or acknowledged. Though Job's friends and Job himself were mistaken, there are many great truths in their speeches, which, as such, may, I think, stand as the foundation of a discourse. Nay, I either have, or have often intended to borrow, a truth from the mouth even of Satan, "Have you not set a hedge about him?" such a confession extorted from our grand adversary, placing the safety of the Lord's people, under his providential care, in a very striking light.

I perfectly agree with you, Madam, that our religious sensations and exercises are much influenced and tinctured by natural constitution. And that, therefore, tears and warm emotions on the one hand, or a comparative dryness of spirit on the other—are no sure indications of the real state of the heart. Appearances may agree in different persons, or vary in the same person—from causes which are merely natural. Even a change of weather may have some influence in raising or depressing the spirits, where the nerves are very delicate. And I think such people are more susceptive of impressions from the agency of invisible powers, both good and evil; an agency which, though we cannot explain, experience will not permit us to deny.

However, though circumstantials rise and fall—the real difference between nature and grace remains unalterable. That work of God upon the heart which is sometimes called a new birth—or a new creation—is as distinct from the highest effects of natural principles or the most specious imitations which education or resolutions can produce, as light is from darkness, or life from death. Only he who made the world can either make a Christian—or support and carry on his own work. A thirst after God as our portion; a delight in Jesus, as the only way to heaven; a renunciation of self and of the world, so far as it is opposite to the spirit of the Gospel—these, and the like fruits of that grace which brings salvation, are not only beyond the power of our fallen nature—but contrary to its tendency; so that we can have no desires of this kind—until they are given us from above; but otherwise, can hardly bear to hear them spoken of, either as excellent or necessary.


September 17, 1776.
My dear Madam,
We are much indebted to you for your kind thoughts of us. Hitherto I feel no uneasiness about what is before me; but I am afraid my tranquility does not wholly spring from trust in the Lord, and submission to his will—but that a part of it at least is derived from the assurances which my physician gave me, that my operation would be neither difficult nor dangerous. I have not much of the hero in my constitution. If in great pains or sharp trials I should ever show a befitting fortitude—it must be given me from above. I desire to leave all with him—in whose hands my ways are—and who has promised me strength according to my day.

I rejoice that the Lord has not only made you desirous of being useful to others in their spiritual concerns—but has given you in some instances to see, that your desires and attempts have not been in vain. I shall thankfully accept of the commission you are pleased to offer me, and take a pleasure in perusing any papers you may think proper to put into my hands, and offer you my sentiments with that sincerity which I am persuaded will be much more agreeable to you than compliments. Though I know there is in general a delicacy and difficulty in services of this kind, yet with respect to yourself I seem to have nothing to fear.

I have often wished we had more female pens employed in the service of the sanctuary. in the article of essay writing, I think many women are qualified to succeed better than most men, having a peculiar easiness of style, which few of us can imitate. I remember you once showed me a paper, together with the corrections and alterations proposed by a gentleman whose opinion you had asked. I thought his corrections had injured it, and given it an air of stiffness which is often observable when learned men write in English. Grammatical rules, as they are called, are wholly derived from the mode of speaking or writing which obtains among those who best understand the language; for the language must be supposed established before any grammar can be made for it; and therefore women who, from the course of their education and life, have had an opportunity of reading the best written books, and conversing with those who speak well, though they do not burden themselves with the formality of grammar, have often more skill in the English language than the men who can call every figure of speech by a Latin or Greek name. You may be sure, Madam, I shall not wish your papers suppressed, merely because they were not written by a learned man. Language and style, however, are but the dress. Trifles, however adorned—are trifles still. A person of spiritual discernment would rather be the author of one page written in the humble garb of Bunyan, upon a serious subject, than to be able to rival the sprightliness and elegance of Lady Montague, unless it could be with a view to edification.

The subjects you propose are important; and with respect to all devotional exercises so called, I perfectly agree with you, that, to be affecting and useful, they must be dictated rather by the heart than by the head; and are most likely to influence others, when they are the fruits and transcripts of our own experience. So far as I know, we are but scantily provided with specimens of this sort in print, and therefore I shall be glad to see an accession to the public stock.

Your other thought of helps to recollection on Saturday evenings, is, I think, an attempt in which none have been beforehand with you. So that, according to the general appearance, I feel myself disposed to encourage you to do as you have purposed. On the other hand, if I meet with anything, on the perusal of the papers, which in my view may seem to need alteration, I will freely and faithfully point it out.

I can almost smile now—to think you once classed me among the Stoics. If I dare speak with confidence of myself in anything, I think I may lay claim to a little of that pleasing, painful thing—sensibility. I need not boast of it; for it has too often been my snare, my sin, and my punishment. Yet I would be thankful for a spice of it, as the Lord's gift, and when rightly exercised it is valuable; and I think I should make but an awkward minister without it, especially here. Where there is this sensibility in the natural temper, it will give a tincture or cast to our religious expression. Indeed I often find this sensibility weakest—where it should be strongest; and have reason to reproach myself that I am no more affected by the character, love, and sufferings of my Lord and Savior, and my own peculiar personal obligations to him. However, my views of religion have been such for many years—make me more likely be deemed an Enthusiast than a Stoic.

A mere head-knowledge derived from a system of sentiments, however true in themselves, is, in my judgment, a poor thing. Nor, on the other hand, am I an admirer of those rapturous sallies which are more owing to a warm imagination, than to a just perception of the power and importance of Gospel truth. The Gospel addresses both head and heart; and where it has its proper effect, where it is received as the Word of God, and is clothed with the authority and energy of the Holy Spirit—the understanding is enlightened, the affections awakened and engaged, the will brought into subjection, and the whole soul delivered to its impression—as wax to the seal. When this is the case, when the affections do not take the lead, and push forward with a blind impulse—but arise from the principles of Scripture, and are governed by them, the more warmth the better.

Yet in this state of infirmity, nothing is perfect; and our natural temperament and disposition will have more influence upon our religious sensations, than we are ordinarily aware. It is well to know how to make proper allowances and abatements upon this head, in the judgment we form both of ourselves and of others. Many good people are distressed and alternately elated—by frames and feelings, which perhaps are more constitutional than properly religious experiences.

I dare not tell you, Madam, what I am; but I can tell you what I wish to be. The love of God, as manifested in Jesus Christ, is what I would wish to be the abiding object of my contemplation; not merely to speculate upon it as a doctrine—but so to feel it, and my own saving interest in it, as to have my heart filled with its effects, and transformed into its resemblance; that, with this glorious Exemplar in my view, I may be animated to a spirit of benevolence, love, and compassion, to all around me; that my love may be primarily fixed upon him who has so loved me; and then, for his sake, diffused to all his children, and to all his creatures. Then, knowing that much is forgiven to me—I would be prompted to the ready exercise of forgiveness, if I have anything against anyone. Then I would be humble, patient, and submissive under all his dispensations; meek, gentle, forbearing, and kind to my fellow-worms. Then I would be active and diligent in improving all my talents and powers in his service, and for his glory; and live not to myself—but to him who loved me and gave himself for me!


Nov. 29, 1776.
My dear Madam,
You need not be told, that though there are perhaps supposable extremities in which SELF would prevail over all considerations; yet in general it is more easy to allow SELF our own case, than in the case of those whom we dearly love; for through such a medium our apprehensions possibly receive the idea of the trouble enlarged beyond its just dimensions; and it would sit lighter upon us if it were properly our own case, for then we would feel it all, and there would be no room for imagination to exaggerate.

But though I feel grief, I trust the Lord has mercifully preserved me from impatience and murmuring, and that, in the midst of all the pleadings of flesh and blood, there is a something within me that aims to say, without reserve or exception, "Not my will—but Yours be done!"

It is a comfortable consideration, that he with whom we have to do, our great High Priest, who once put away our sins by the sacrifice of himself, and now forever appears in the presence of God for us—is not only possessed of sovereign authority and infinite power—but wears our very nature, and feels and exercises in the highest degree—those tenderness and commiserations, which I conceive are essential to humanity in its perfect state. The whole history of his wonderful life is full of inimitable instances of this kind. His affections were moved—before his arm was exerted. He condescended to mingle tears with mourners, and wept over distresses which he intended to relieve. He is still the same in his exalted state; compassions dwell within his heart. In a way inconceivable to us—but consistent with his supreme dignity and perfection of happiness and glory—he still feels for his people.

When Saul persecuted the members upon earth, the Head complained from heaven; and sooner shall the most tender mother sit insensible and inattentive to the cries and needs of her infant—than the Lord Jesus be an unconcerned spectator of his suffering children. No, with the eye, and the ear, and the heart of a friend—he attends to their sorrows; he counts their sighs, puts their tears in his bottle; and when our spirits are overwhelmed within us—he knows our path, and adjusts the time, the measure of our trials, and everything that is necessary for our present support and seasonable deliverance, with the same unerring wisdom and accuracy as he weighed the mountains in scales and hills in a balance, and meted out the heavens with a span!

Still more, besides his benevolent sympathy—he has an experimental sympathy. He knows our sorrows, not merely as he knows all things—but as one who has been in our situation, and who, though without sin himself, endured when upon earth, inexpressibly more for us than he will ever lay upon us! He has sanctified poverty, pain, disgrace, temptation, and death—by passing through these states! And in whatever states his people are, they may by faith have fellowship with him in their sufferings, and he will by sympathy and love have fellowship and interest with them in theirs.

What then shall we fear—or of what shall we complain—when all our concerns are written upon his heart, and their management, to the very hairs of our head, are under his care and providence; when he pities us more than we can do ourselves, and has engaged his almighty power to sustain and relieve us? However, as he is compassionate and tender—he is wise also. He loves us—but especially with regard to our best interests. If there were not something in our hearts and our situation which required discipline and medicine, he so delights in our prosperity, that we would never be in heaviness. The innumerable comforts and mercies with which he enriches even those we call darker days, are sufficient proofs that he does not willingly grieve us. But when he sees a need-be for chastisement, he will not withhold it, because he loves us; on the contrary, that is the very reason why he afflicts us! He will put his silver into the fire to purify it; but he sits by the furnace as a refiner, to direct the process, and to secure the end he has in view—that we may neither suffer too much nor suffer in vain!


December, 1776.
My dear Madam,
I have often preached to others of the benefits of affliction; but my own path for many years has been so smooth, and my trials, though I have not been without trials, comparatively so light and few—that I have seemed to myself to speak by rote upon a subject of which I had not a proper feeling. Yet the many exercises of my poor afflicted people, and the sympathy the Lord has given me with them in their troubles—has made "the benefits of affliction" a frequent and favorite topic of my ministry among them. The advantages of afflictions, when the Lord is pleased to employ them for the good of his people, are many and great. Permit me to mention a few of them; and may the Lord grant that we may all find those blessed ends answered to ourselves, by the trials he is pleased to appoint us.

Afflictions quicken us to prayer. It is a pity it should be so; but experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes—has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secret worship. But troubles rouse our spirits, and constrain us to call upon the Lord in good earnest—when we feel a need of that help which we only can have from his almighty arm.

Afflictions are useful, and in a degree necessary, to keep alive in us—a conviction of the vanity and unsatisfying nature of the present world, and all its enjoyments; to remind us that this world is not our rest, and to call our thoughts upwards, where our true treasure is, and where our heart ought to be. When things go on much to our wish, our hearts are too prone to say, "It is good to be here!" It is probable, that had Moses, when he came to invite Israel to Canaan, found them in prosperity—that they would have been very unwilling to move out of Egypt; but the afflictions they were in—made his message welcome. Thus the Lord, by pain, sickness, and disappointments, by breaking our cisterns and withering our gourds—weakens our attachment to this world, and makes the thought of leaving it, more easy and more desirable.

A child of God cannot but greatly desire a more enlarged and experimental acquaintance with his holy Word; and this attainment is greatly promoted by our trials. The far greater part of the promises in Scripture, are made and suited to a state of affliction; and, though we may believe they are true, we cannot so well know their sweetness, power, and suitableness, unless we ourselves are in a state to which they refer! The Lord says, "Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you." Now, until the day of trouble comes, such a promise is like a city of refuge to an Israelite, who, not having slain a man, was in no danger of the avenger of blood. He had a privilege near him, of which he knew not the use and value—because he was not in the case for which it was provided. But some can say, I not only believe this promise upon the authority of the speaker—but I can set my seal to it! I have been in trouble; I took this course for relief, and I was not disappointed. The Lord truly heard and delivered me. Thus afflictions likewise give occasion of our knowing and noticing more of the Lord's wisdom, power, and goodness, in supporting and relieving us—than we would otherwise have known.

I have not time to take another sheet, must therefore contract my homily.

Afflictions evidence to ourselves, and manifest to others, the reality of grace. When we suffer as Christians, exercise some measure of that patience and submission, and receive some measure of these supports and supplies, which the Gospel requires and promises to believers—we are more confirmed that we have not taken up with mere notions; and others may be convinced that we do not follow cunningly devised fables.

Afflictions likewise strengthen us—by the exercise our graces. As our limbs and natural powers would be feeble if not called to daily exertion—so the graces of the Spirit would languish, without something which was provided to draw them out to use.

Lastly, afflictions are honorable, as they advance our conformity to Jesus our Lord, who was a man of sorrows for our sake. Methinks, if we might go to heaven without suffering, we would be unwilling to desire it. Why should we ever wish to go by any other path to heaven—than that which Jesus has consecrated and endeared, by his own example? Especially as his people's sufferings are not penal—there is no wrath in them. The cup he puts in their hands is very different from that which he drank for their sakes, and is only medicinal to promote their chief good. Here I must stop; but the subject is fruitful, and might be pursued through a quire of paper.


August, 1778.
My dear Madam,
Topics of consolation are at hand in abundance; they are familiar to your mind; and was I to fill the sheet with them, I could suggest nothing but what you already know. Then are they consolatory indeed—only when the Lord himself is pleased to apply them to the heart! This he has promised, and therefore we are encouraged to expect it. This is my prayer for you. I sincerely sympathize with you; I cannot comfort you—but he can; and I trust he will. How impertinent would it be to advise you to forget or suspend the feelings which such a stroke must excite! Who can help feeling! Nor is sensibility in itself sinful.

Christian resignation is very different from that stoic stubbornness which is most easily practiced by those unamiable characters whose regards center wholly in SELF; nor could we in a proper manner exercise submission to the will of God under our trials—if we did not feel them. He who knows our frame is pleased to allow, that afflictions for the present are not joyous—but grievous. But to those who fear him—he is near at hand, to support their spirits, to moderate their grief, and in the outcome to sanctify it; so that they shall come out of the furnace refined—more humble, and more spiritual.

There is, however, a part assigned us—we are to pray for divine help when in need; and we are not willfully to give way to the impression of overwhelming sorrow. We are to endeavor to turn our thoughts to such considerations as are suited to alleviate it—our deserts as sinners, the many mercies we are still indulged with, the still greater afflictions which many of our fellow-creatures endure, and, above all, the sufferings of Jesus, that Man of Sorrows, who made himself intimately acquainted with grief for our sakes.

When the will of the Lord is manifested to us by the event, we are to look to him for grace and strength; and be still—and know that he is God, that he has a right to dispose of us and ours as he pleases, and that in the exercise of this right—he is most certainly good and wise.

We often complain of our losses; but the expression is rather improper. Strictly speaking, we can lose nothing, because we have no real property in anything. Our earthly comforts are all lent to us by our good and gracious God; and when recalled, we ought to return and resign them with thankfulness—to Him who has let them remain so long in our hands! But, as I said above, I do not mean to enlarge in this strain.

I hope the Lord, the only comforter, will bring such thoughts with warmth and efficacy upon your mind. Your wound, while fresh, is painful; but faith, prayer, and time, will, I trust, gradually render it tolerable. There is something fascinating in grief—painful as it is, we are prone to indulge it, and to brood over the thoughts and circumstances which are suited (like fuel to fire) to heighten and prolong it! When the Lord afflicts, it is his design that we should grieve. But in this, as in all other things, there is a certain moderation which befits a Christian, and which only grace can teach. And grace teaches us, not by books or by hearsay—but by experimental lessons. All beyond this—should be avoided and guarded against as sinful and hurtful.

Grief, when indulged and excessive, preys upon the spirits, injures health, indisposes us for duty, and causes us to shed tears which deserve more tears. This is a weeping world! Sin has filled it with thorns and briars, with crosses and calamities. This world is a great hospital, resounding with groans in every quarter. This world is as a field of battle, where many are falling around us continually; and it is more astonishing that we escape so well—than that we are sometimes wounded. We must have some share of affliction—it is the unavoidable lot of our nature and state; it is likewise needful in point of discipline. The Lord will certainly chasten those whom he loves, though others may seem to pass for a time with impunity. That is a sweet, instructive, and important passage, Heb. 12:5-11. It is so plain, that it needs no comment; so full, that a comment would but weaken it. May the Lord inscribe it upon your heart, my dear Madam, and upon mine as well!


November, 1778.
My dear Madam,
Your compelling letter raised in me a variety of emotions when I first received it, and has revived them this morning while perusing it again. I have mourned and rejoiced with you—and felt pain and pleasure in succession, as you enlarged the subject. However, the weight of your grief I was willing to consider as a thing that is past; and the thought that you had been mercifully supported under it, and brought through it, that you were restored home in safety, and that at the time of writing you were tolerably well and composed, and joyful, upon the whole. Now I am more disposed to congratulate you, and join you in praising the Lord for the mercies you enumerate, than to prolong my condolence upon the mournful parts of your letter.

Repeated trying occasions have made me well acquainted with the anxious inquiries, with which the busy poring mind is apt to pursue departed friends—it can hardly be otherwise under some circumstances. I have found prayer the best relief. I have had the most comfort, when I have been enabled to resign the whole concern into His hands, whose thoughts and ways, whose power and goodness, are infinitely superior to our feeble conceptions!

I consider, in such cases, that the great Redeemer can save to the uttermost—and the great Teacher can communicate light, and impress truth, when and how he pleases. I trust the power of his grace and compassion, will hereafter triumphantly appear, in many instances, of people, who, on their dying beds, and in their last moments, have been, by his mercy, constrained to feel the importance and reality of truths which they did not properly understand and attend to in the hour of health and prosperity. Such a beneficial change I have frequently, or at least more than once, twice, or thrice, been an eye-witness to, accompanied with such evidence as, I think, has been quite satisfactory. And who can say such a change may not often take place, when the person who is the subject of it is too much enfeebled to give an account to bystanders of what is transacting in his mind! Thus I have encouraged my hope. But the best satisfaction of all is, to be duly impressed with the voice that says, "Be still—and know that I am God." These words direct us, not only to his sovereignty, his undoubted right to do what he will with his own—but to all his adorable and amiable perfections, by which he has manifested himself to us in the Son of his love.

As I am not a Sadducee, the account you give of the music which entertained you on the road, does not put my dependence either upon your veracity or your judgment to any trial. We live upon the confines of the invisible world, or rather, perhaps, in the midst of it. That unseen agents have a power of operating on our minds, at least upon that mysterious faculty we call the imagination, is with me not merely a point of opinion, or even of faith—but of experience. That evil spirits can, when permitted, disturb, distress, and defile us, I know—as well as I know that the fire can burn me. And though their interposition is perhaps more easily and certainly distinguishable, yet, from analogy, I conclude that holy angels are equally willing, and equally able, to employ their kind offices for our relief and comfort.

I have formed in my mind a kind of system upon this subject, which, for the most part, I keep pretty much to myself; but I can entrust my thoughts to you as they occasionally offer. I apprehend that some people (those particularly who rank under the class of nervous) are more open and accessible to these impressions than others, and probably the same person more so at some times—than others. And though we frequently distinguish between imaginary and real (which is one reason why nervous people are so seldom pitied), yet an impression upon the imagination may, as to the agent that produces it, and to the person that receives it—be as much a reality as any of the sensible objects around him; though a bystander, not being able to share in the perception, may account it a mere whim, and suppose it might be avoided or removed by an act of the will.

Nor have any a right to withhold their assent to what the Scriptures teach, and many sober people declare, of this invisible agency, merely because we cannot answer the questions, How? or Why? The thing may be certain—though we cannot easily explain it. And there may be just and important reasons for it—though we are not be able to assign them. If what you heard, or (which, in my view, is much the same) what you thought you heard, had a tendency to compose your spirit, and to encourage your application to the Lord for help, at the time when you were about to stand in need of especial assistance—then there is a sufficient and suitable reason assigned for it at once, without looking farther. It would be dangerous to make such impressions a rule of duty; but if they strengthen us and assist us in the performance of what we know to be our duty—we may be thankful for them.

You have taken leave of the scenes of your younger life—a few years sooner than you must have done, if the late dispensation had not taken place. All must be left soon—for all below is polluted, and in its best state—is too scanty to afford us real happiness. If we are believers in Jesus, all which we leave is a mere nothing, compared with what we shall obtain. To exchange a dungeon for a palace, earth for heaven—will call for no self-denial when we stand upon the threshold of eternity, and shall have a clearer view than we have now of the vanity of what we are leaving—and the glory of what we are obtaining! The little losses and changes we meet with in our way through life—are designed to remind us of, and prepare us for the great change which awaits us at the end of it. May the Lord grant that we may find His mercy in that solemn hour!