John Newton's Letters

Four letters to a widow

Letter 1
March 12, 1774.
My dear Madam,

My heart is full, yet I must restrain it. Many thoughts which crowd my mind, and would have vent were I writing to another person, would to you be unseasonable. I write not to remind you of what you have lost—but of what you have, which you cannot lose. May the Lord put a word into my heart that may be acceptable; and may his good Spirit accompany the perusal, and enable you to say with the Apostle, that, as sufferings abound, consolations also abound by Jesus Christ. Indeed I can sympathize with you. I remember too the delicacy of your frame, and the tenderness of your natural spirits; so that were you not interested in the exceeding great and precious promises of the Gospel—I would be ready to fear you must sink under your trial. But I have some faint conceptions of the all-sufficiency and faithfulness of the Lord, and may address you in the king's words to Daniel, "Your God whom you serve continually—he will deliver you."

Motives for resignation to his will abound in his Word; but it is an additional and crowning mercy, that he has promised to apply and enforce them in time of need. He has said, "My grace shall be sufficient for you;" and "as your day is—so shall your strength be." This I trust you have already experienced. The Lord is so rich, and so good, that he can by a glance of thought compensate his children for whatever his wisdom sees fit to deprive them of. If he gives them a lively sense of what he has delivered them from—and prepared for them—or of what he himself submitted to endure for their sakes—they find at once light springing up out of darkness—hard things become easy—and bitter sweet.

I remember to have read of a good man in the last century (probably you may have met with the story), who, when his beloved and only son lay ill, was for some time greatly anxious about the event. One morning he staid longer than usual in his closet. while he was there his son died. When he came out his family were afraid to tell him; but, like David, he perceived it by their looks; and when upon inquiry they said it was so, he received the news with a composure that surprised them. But he soon explained the reason, by telling them, that for such discoveries of the Lord's goodness as he had been favored with that morning—he could be content to lose a son every day.

Yes, Madam, though every stream must fail, the fountain is still full and still flowing. All the comfort you ever received in your dear husband was from the Lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still. Your husband has gone but a little before you. May your faith anticipate the joyful and glorious meeting you will shortly have in the heavenly world. Then your worship and converse together will be to unspeakable advantage, without imperfection, interruption, abatement, or end! Then all tears shall be wiped away, and every cloud removed; and then you will see, that all your concernments here below (the late afflicting dispensation not excepted), were appointed and adjusted by infinite wisdom and infinite love!

The Lord, who knows our frame, does not expect or require that we should aim at a stoic indifference under his visitations. He allows, that afflictions are at present not joyous—but grievous; yes, he wept with his mourning friends when Lazarus died. But he has graciously provided for the prevention of that anguish and bitterness of sorrow, which is, upon such occasions, the portion of such as live without God in the world; and has engaged, that all shall work together for good, and yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. May he bless you with a sweet serenity of spirit, and a cheerful hope of the glory that shall shortly be revealed.

I intimated, that I would not trouble you with my own sense and share of this loss. If you remember the great kindness I always received from your husband and yourself, as often as opportunity afforded; and if you will believe me possessed of any sensibility or gratitude, you will conclude that my concern is not small. I feel likewise for the public. Will it be a consolation to you, madam, to know, that you do not mourn alone? A character so exemplary as a friend, a counselor, a Christian, and a minister, will be long and deeply regretted; and many will join with me in praying, that you, who are most nearly interested, may be signally supported.

We join in most affectionate respects and condolence. May the Lord bless you and keep you, lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace!


Letter 2
April 8, 1775.
My dear Madam,
I have long and often purposed waiting upon you with a second letter, though one thing or other still caused delay; for though I could not but wish to hear from you, I was far from making that a condition of my writing. If you have leisure and desire to favor me with a line now and then, it will give us much pleasure; but if not, it will be a sufficient inducement with me to write, to know that you give me liberty, and that you will receive my letters in good part. At the same time I must add, that my various engagements will not permit me to break in upon you so often as my sincere affection would otherwise prompt me to do.

I heartily desire to praise the Lord on your behalf. I am persuaded that his goodness to you in supporting you under a trial so sharp in itself, and in the circumstances that attended it—has been an encouragement and comfort to many. It is in such apparently severe times, that the all-sufficiency and faithfulness of the Lord, and the power and proper effects of his precious Gospel, are most eminently displayed. I would hope, and I do believe, that the knowledge of your case has animated some of the Lord's people against those anxious fears which they sometimes feel when they look upon their earthly comforts with too careful an eye, and their hearts are ready to sink at the thought. What should I do, and how should I behave, were the Lord pleased to take away my desire with a stroke? But we see he can supply their absence, and afford us superior comforts without them.

The Gospel reveals one thing needful—the pearl of great price; and supposes, that they who possess this are provided for, against all events, and have ground of unshaken hope, and a source of never-failing consolation under every change they can meet with during their pilgrimage state. When his people are enabled to set their seal to this, not only in theory, when all things go smooth—but practically, when called upon to pass through the fire and water—then his grace is glorified in them and by them. Then it appears, both to themselves and to others, that they have neither followed cunningly devised fables, nor amused themselves with empty notions. Then they know in themselves, and it is evidenced to others—that God is with them in truth.

In this view a believer, when in some good measure divested from that narrow selfish disposition which cleaves so close to us by nature, will not only submit to trials—but rejoice in them, notwithstanding the feelings and reluctance of the flesh. For if I am redeemed from misery by the blood of Jesus; and if he is now preparing me a mansion near himself, that I may drink of the rivers of pleasure at his right hand for evermore; the question is not (at least ought not to be), "how may I pass through life with the least inconvenience?" but, "how may my little span of life be made most subservient to the praise and glory of Him who loved me, and gave himself for me?"

Where the Lord gives this desire—he will gratify it; and as afflictions, for the most part, afford the fairest opportunities of this kind, therefore it is, that those whom he is pleased eminently to honor are usually called, at one time or another, to the heaviest trials; not because he loves to grieve them—but because he hears their prayers, and accepts their desires of doing him service in the world.

The post of honor in war is so called, because attended with difficulties and dangers which but few are supposed equal to; yet generals usually allot these hard services to their favorites and friends, who on their parts eagerly accept them as tokens of favor and marks of confidence. Should we, therefore, not account it an honor and a privilege, when the Captain of our salvation assigns us a difficult post? He can and does (which no earthly commander can) inspire his soldiers with wisdom, courage, and strength, suitable to their situation. 2Co. 12:9-10. I am acquainted with a few who have been led thus into the forefront of the battle. They suffered much; but I have never heard them say they suffered too much; for the Lord stood by them and strengthened them. Go on, my dear madam. In a little while Jesus will wipe away all tears from your eyes; you will see your beloved husband again, and he and you will rejoice together forever!


Letter 3
October 24, 1775.
My dear Madam,
The manner in which you mention my Omicron's letters, I hope, will rather humble me, than puff me up. Your favorable acceptance of them, if alone, might have the latter effect; but alas! I feel myself so very defective in practicing those things, the importance of which I endeavored to point out to others, that I almost appear to myself to be one of those who do not practice what I preach. I find it much easier to speak to the hearts of others—than to my own. Yet I have cause beyond many—to bless God, that he has given me some idea of what a Christian ought to be, and I hope a real desire of being one myself; but truly I have attained but a very little way.

A friend hinted to me, that the character I have given of "C", or "Grace in the full ear", must be from my own experience, or I could not have written it. To myself, however, it appears otherwise; but I am well convinced, that the state of "C" is attainable, and more to be desired than mountains of gold and silver! But I find you complain likewise; though it appears to me, and I believe to all who know you, that the Lord has been peculiarly gracious to you, in giving you much of the Spirit in which He delights, and by which His name and the power of His Gospel are glorified. It seems, therefore, that we are not competent judges either of ourselves or of others.

I take it for granted, that they are the most excellent Christians—who are most abased in their own eyes. But lest you should think upon this ground that I am something, because I can say so many humiliating things of myself, I must prevent your over-rating me, by assuring you, that my confessions rather express what I know I ought to think of myself, than what I actually do think of myself.

Naturalists suppose, that if the matter of which the earth is formed were condensed as much as it is capable of, it would occupy but a very small space. In proof of which they observe, that pane of glass, which appears smooth and impervious to us, must be exceedingly porous in itself; since in every point it receives and transmits the rays of light; and yet gold, which is the most solid substance we are acquainted with, is but about eight times heavier than glass, which is made up (if I may so say) of nothing but pores. In like manner I conceive, that inherent grace, when it is dilated, and appears to the greatest advantage in a sinner, would be found to be very small and inconsiderable, if it was condensed, and absolutely separated from every mixture.

The highest attainments in grace in this life are very inconsiderable, compared with what should properly result from our relation and obligations to a God of infinite holiness. The nearer we approach to him—the more we are sensible of this. While we only hear of God as it were by the ear—we seem to be something. But when, as in the case of Job, he reveals himself more sensibly to us, Job's language becomes ours, and the height of our attainment is, to "abhor ourselves in dust and ashes!"

There certainly is a real, though secret, a sweet, though mysterious, communion of saints, by virtue of their common union with Jesus. Feeding upon the same bread, drinking of the same fountain, waiting at the same mercy-seat, and aiming at the same ends, they have fellowship one with another, though at a distance. Who can tell how often the Holy Spirit, who is equally present with them all, touches the hearts of two or more of his children at the same instant, so as to excite a sympathy of pleasure, prayer, or praise, on each other's account? It revives me sometimes in a dull and dark hour to reflect, that the Lord has in mercy given me a place in the hearts of many of his people; and perhaps some of them may be speaking to him on my behalf—when I have hardly power to utter a word for myself. For kind services of this sort, I persuade myself I am often indebted to you. O that I were enabled more fervently to repay you in the same way! I can say, that I attempt it. I love and honor you greatly, and your concernments are often upon my mind.

We spent most of a week with Mr. B. since we returned from London, and he has been once here. We have reason to be very thankful for his connection. I find but few like minded with him, and his family is filled with the grace and peace of the Gospel. I never visit them—but I meet with something to humble, quicken, and edify me. O! what will heaven be, where there shall be all who love the Lord Jesus, and they alone; where all imperfection, and whatever now abates or interrupts their joy in their Lord and in each other, shall cease forever! There at least I hope to meet you, and spend an eternity with you, in admiring the riches and glory of redeeming love!


Letter 4
October 28, 1777.
My dear Madam,
What can I say for myself, to let your compelling letter remain so long unanswered, when your kind solicitude for us induced you to write? I am ashamed of the delay. You would have heard from me immediately, had I been at home. But I have reason to be thankful that we were providentially called to London a few days before the fire; so that my wife was mercifully preserved from the alarm and shock she must have felt, had she been upon the spot. Your letter followed me hither, and was in my possession more than a week before my return. I purposed ti write to you every day—but indeed I was much hurried and engaged. Yet I am not excused. I ought to have saved time from my meals or my sleep, rather than appear negligent or ungrateful.

The fire devoured twelve houses—and it was a mercy, and almost a miracle, that the whole town was not destroyed; which must, humanly speaking, have been the case, had not the night been calm, as two thirds of the buildings were thatched. No lives were lost; no person considerably hurt; and I believe the contributions of the benevolent will prevent the loss from being greatly felt. It was at the distance of a quarter of a mile from my house.

Your letter points out a subject for me to address. Yet at the same time, you lay me under a difficulty. I would not willingly offend you, and I hope the Lord has taught me not to aim at saying flattering things. I deal not in flattery, and religious flattery is the most inappropriate of any.

But why might I not express my sense of the grace of God, manifested in you as well as in another? I believe our hearts are all alike—destitute of every good, and prone to every evil! Like money from the same mint—they bear the same impression of total depravity; but grace makes a difference, and grace deserves the praise. Perhaps it ought not greatly to displease you, that others do, and must, and will think better of you than you do of yourself. If I do, how can I help it, when I form my judgment entirely from what you say and write? I cannot consent, that you should seriously appoint me to examine and judge of your state. I thought you knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, what your views and desires are. Yes, you express them in your letter, in full agreement with what the Scripture declares of the principles, desires, and feelings of a Christian. It is true that you feel contrary principles, that you are conscious of defects and defilements; but it is equally true, that you could not be right, if you did not feel these things. To be conscious of them, and humbled for them—is one of the surest marks of grace; and to be more deeply sensible of them than formerly—is the best evidence of growth in grace. But when the enemy would tempt us to doubt and distrust, because we are not perfect—then he fights, not only against our peace—but against the honor and faithfulness of our dear Lord. Our righteousness is in Jesus; and our hope depends, not upon the exercise of grace in us—but upon the fullness of grace and love in him, and upon his obedience unto death.

There is, my dear madam, a difference between the holiness of a sinner—and that of an angel. The angels have never sinned, nor have they tasted of redeeming love. they have no inward conflicts, no law of sin warring in their members; their obedience is perfect; their happiness is complete. Yet if I be found among redeemed sinners, I need not wish to be an angel. Perhaps God is not less glorified by your obedience, and, not to shock you, I will add by mine, than by Gabriel's. It is a mighty manifestation of his grace indeed—when it can live, and act, and conquer in such hearts as ours; when, in defiance of an evil nature and an evil world, and all the force and subtlety of Satan—a weak worm is still upheld, and enabled not only to climb—but to thresh the mountains; when a small spark is preserved through storms and floods. In these circumstances, the work of grace is to be estimated, not merely from its imperfect appearance—but from the difficulties it has to struggle with and overcome. And therefore our holiness does not consist in great attainments—but in spiritual desires, in hungering, thirstiness, and mournings; in humiliation of heart, poverty of spirit, submission, meekness; in hearty admiring thoughts of Jesus, and dependence upon him alone for all we need. Indeed these may be said to be great attainments; but they who have most of them are most sensible that they, in and of themselves, are nothing, have nothing, can do nothing—and see daily cause for abhorring themselves and repenting in dust and ashes!

Our view of death will not always be alike—but in proportion to the degree in which the Holy Spirit is pleased to communicate his sensible influence. We may anticipate the moment of dissolution with pleasure and desire in the morning—and be ready to shrink from the thought of it before night! But though our frames and perceptions vary, the report of faith concerning it is the same. The Lord usually reserves dying strength for a dying hour! When Israel was to pass Jordan, the Ark was in the river; and though the rear of the army could not see it, yet as they successively came forward and approached the banks, they all beheld the Ark, and all went safely over. As you are not weary of living, if it be the Lord's pleasure, so I hope, for the sake of your friends and the people whom you love—he will spare you among us a little longer; but when the time shall arrive which he has appointed for your dismissal—I make no doubt but he will overpower all your fears, silence all your enemies, and give you a comfortable, triumphant entrance into his kingdom.

You have nothing to fear from death; for Jesus, by dying, has disarmed it of its sting, has perfumed the grave, and opened the gates of glory for his believing people! Satan, so far as he is permitted, will assault our peace—but he is a vanquished enemy. Our Lord holds him with a chain, and sets him bounds which he cannot pass. He provides for us likewise the whole armor of God, and has promised to cover our heads himself in the day of battle, to bring us honorably through every skirmish, and to make us more than conquerors at last.

If you think my short unexpected interview with Mr. C. may justify my wishing he should know that I respect his character, love his person, and rejoice in what the Lord has done and is doing for him and by him, I beg you to tell him so—but I leave it entirely to you.