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John Newton (1725–1807)

By Marylynn Rouse

John Newton (1725-1807)


John Newton was born in Wapping in 1725 to a seafaring father and a godly mother. The fact that he was once a slave trader is well known today. What is not so commonly known is that he left the slave trade more than thirty years before The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed.

Newton's association with the slave trade began when, at the age of 19, a failed attempt at desertion from the Royal Navy saw him exchanged on to a merchant ship bound for West Africa.

In his Authentic Narrative (1764) he wrote openly of his slave trading: 'I considered myself as a sort of gaoler or turnkey, and I was sometimes shocked with an employment that was perpetually conversant with chains, bolts, and shackles.'

It is a mark of those times that although the Authentic Narrative went into many editions and was translated into several different languages, it drew no censure or criticism from any of its numerous readers. What strikes us as incomprehensible today, is the fact that after he was dramatically converted to Christianity, Newton went on to accept further responsibilities in the trade. In his Letters to a Wife he describes his own incredulity: 'The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself; that, knowing the state of the vile traffic to be as I have here described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not, at the time, start with horror at my own employment, as an agent in promoting it. Custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly.'

By 1754, when Newton left the trade, there was still no public outcry against slavery. In fact, it would be another four years before the Philadelphia Quakers banned the buying and selling of slaves, and almost another two decades before the publication of Anthony Benezet's influential Some Historical Account of Guinea (1771). After some months receiving Christian teaching and fellowship in London, Newton began work as Surveyor of Tides in Liverpool in August 1755. Then feeling increasingly drawn to the ministry, he dedicated himself in 1758 for full-time service in the Church.

He was eventually ordained into the Church of England in 1764, to the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire, where he ministered for 16 years. Through his preaching, writing and counselling, his influence extended further afield and across denominations. One of Newton's New Year's hymns, Amazing Grace (from 1 Chronicles 17), has since entered The Guinness Book of Records for having the largest number of different recordings—over 3,000.

By the time he began ministering in Olney, Newton was increasingly aware of the gross inhumanity of the slave trade. He was friendly with Moravians who were engaged in missionary work amongst the slaves in the West Indies. John Thornton (William Wilberforce's uncle) shared his correspondence with the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley with him. In 1772 Newton was visited in Olney by a former slave, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1710?–1774?), whom he received 'with gladness as a singular instance of the Sovereignty and Providence of God'. And he wrote a recommendation 'in his behalf' to help James promote his autobiography on his promotional tour. It is likely that his neighbour and close friend, William Cowper, gleaned insights from Newton for his antislavery poems and prose.

By January 1780, Newton was based in London as rector of St Mary Woolnoth, where he quickly became a focal point for believers of all denominations. He also published two volumes of highly influential letters, which attracted the attention of the author Hannah More, who met Newton, was converted, and became of great usefulness to the abolition cause.

In 1785, William Wilberforce sought a secret meeting with Newton, who counselled him not to seek the ordination he was contemplating, but to remain in politics where he could best fulfil his calling. For the next twenty years Newton encouraged and mentored the Member of Parliament. Wilberforce's sons recalled that 'we are not left to gather from mere probability that Mr Newton spoke upon the [slave] subject. Remorse for his own early share in its iniquity kept it so constantly before that holy man that Mr Wilberforce frequently declared that "he never spent one half hour in his company without hearing some allusion to it."'

John Newton's handwriting

In May 1787, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. When Newton visited Wilberforce on Sunday 28 October 1787, the MP asked him for guidance on gaining support, a question which Newton acknowledged 'is indeed of great importance', writing 'How far we may accommodate ourselves to the prejudices of those about us, with a hope of winning upon them, or at least of availing ourselves of their influence, to assist us in promoting those good designs, which we cannot so well do without them?' Their conversation gave Wilberforce the confidence to write in his journal that day: 'God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.'

In November 1787, James Phillips, whose printing office was a stone's throw from Newton's church, indicated his desire to publish 'such other pieces as may occasionally appear on the subject'. Newton immediately set about contributing support. The Morning Chronicle from Saturday 26–Tuesday 28 January 1788 featured an advertisement: 'This day is published, price 1s, Thoughts on the African Slave Trade, By John Newton'.

On Wednesday 29th January, the Abolition Committee resolved: 'to disperse in the most effectual manner of a late publication entitled Thoughts on the African Slave Trade by the Revd Mr Newton.' They bought up all unsold copies, ordered 3,000 more to be printed and forwarded an edition to each Member of both Houses of Parliament.

Thus, before the debates began, every member of the House of Commons and the House of Lords had a copy of Newton's powerful testimony against a commerce he described as 'so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive, as the African Slave Trade'.

Newton's Thoughts were quoted in many subsequent pamphlets. Peter Peckard's tract, Am I not a Man? And a Brother? recommended Newton's Thoughts as 'absolute authority upon the point'. And Cowper predicted it would be, 'I doubt not, to all prudent persons the most satisfactory publication on the subject'.

In February 1788, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, commissioned a report on the slave trade but by March 1788 Wilberforce was gravely ill. While he was convalescing, Newton wrote to update him: 'Sir Charles Middleton desired me to keep in the way, one week, if I should be wanted to give evidence at the bar of the House of Commons, but the business went on there very well without me. The next week I had an order from the Lords to attend them, but I was not called upon.' However, the following week he did give evidence before the Privy Council.

In 1790, Newton again provided evidence, this time to the Select Committee of the House of Commons. In his own annotated copy of the Abstract he inscribed: 'I make no apology for speaking publicly against this trade. I dare not. Should I be silent; my Conscience would speak loudly, knowing what I know. Nor could I expect a blessing on my Ministry—tho' I should speak of the sufferings of Jesus, till I was hoarse.' Then he quoted from Genesis 4:10, 'And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground!'

As the debates resumed in 1792, Newton wrote to his friend William Bull: 'When I was assured that Mr Wilberforce would renew his motion in the House this session, I preached (as I did last year) about the slave trade. I considered it not in a political but in a moral view'. A few days later he dropped a reminder to Bull: 'The abolition business comes on next Monday. Help us with your prayers, that he who has all hearts in his hands may give a happy issue.' Newton was also holding a monthly prayer meeting in London in support of the abolitionists, at the home of James Neale, potter and associate of Josiah Wedgwood.

As Wilberforce suffered disappointments in the House, Newton sought to console him: 'The situation of the slaves, and your exertions for their relief, are, if I may so say, palpable subjects—they are felt by all, where sordid interest has not benumbed—and therefore your name will be revered by many, who are little affected by the love of the Great Philanthropist. If therefore you meet with some unkind reflections and misrepresentations, from men of unfeeling and mercenary spirits, you will bear it patiently, when you think of Him, who endured the contradiction of sinners against Himself.'

With tremendous opposition to abolition coming from the commercial world, where interest lay in the continuation of slavery, it was providential that Newton's church was right next door to the city banks in Lombard Street. He confided to his friend Richard Cecil that he shortened his Sunday morning sermons, believing 'I may have two or three bankers present'.

When the vote for an Abolition Bill was overwhelmingly won on 30 May 1804, the end was in sight. Newton wrote excitedly to Wilberforce: 'Though I can scarcely see the paper before me, [I] must attempt to express my thankfulness to the Lord, and to offer my congratulations to you for the success which he has so far been pleased to give to your unwearied endeavours for the abolition of the slave trade.'

The Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade finally became law on 25 March 1807. John Newton died on 21 December 1807, aged 82. The death notice in The Times two days later stated: 'His unblemished life, his amiable character, both as a man and a Minister, and his able writings, are too well known to need any comment.'

© Marylynn Rouse 2020



Selected Works

Newton, John, Amazing Grace sermon and hymn, www.johnnewton.org

Newton, John, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable And Interesting Particulars in the Life of ------ Communicated, in a Series of Letters, to the Reverend T. Haweis, Rector of Aldwinckle, And by him, at the request of friends, now made public (London: Johnson, 1764)

[Newton, John], Cardiphonia: or, The utterance of the heart; in the course of a real correspondence, by the author of Omicron's letters, (London: Buckland, Johnson, 1781), 2 vols

[Newton, John], Letters by the Rev John Newton, ed Josiah Bull (London: Religious Tract Society, 1869)

Newton, John, Letters to a Wife (London: Johnson, 1793), 2 vols. Included in Newton's Works; Thomas Fowell Buxton wrote to his fiancée Hannah Gurney: 'I hardly think that I have read a book that I liked so well—I hope we shall some time or other read it together.'

Newton, John, Ministry on my mind (The John Newton Project, 2008, reprinted 2010). This is a transcript of Newton's 'Miscellaneous Thoughts and enquiries on an important subject', Lambeth Palace Library, MS 2937

[Newton, John], One Hundred and Twenty-Nine Letters from the Rev John Newton... to the Rev Mr William Bull (London: Hamilton, Adams, and co, 1847)

Newton, John, The Works of John Newton (Banner of Truth, 2015), 4 vols. This edition is very helpfully in modern typeface; the first edition was published in 1808 and the contents have varied a little down the decades. Banner's 2015 edition includes Newton's Narrative

Newton, John, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (London: Buckland & Johnson, January 1788). Reprinted within a month by James Phillips, a large-print copy being given by the Abolition Committee to each member of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords before the commencement of the debates. An online copy is available at www.cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk

See also www.johnnewton.org for much previously unpublished work by Newton


Manuscript sources (which include Newton reference to slavery and abolition)

Bodleian Library, Oxford, Wilberforce Papers, MS Wilberforce c49. Letters from Newton to William and Barbara Wilberforce, 1785-1804.

British Library: Fair Minute Books of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Add Ms 21254-6. Includes reports on how they snapped up the last copies of Newton's Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade in the first week of its publication and reprinted it.

Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich LOG/M/46. Log of John Newton while Master of the Duke of Argyle and African on voyages to Africa and the West Indies between 1750 and 1754.

Cambridge University Library, Thornton Papers, Add 7674 and Add 7828. Letters between Newton and John and Lucy Thornton.

Dr Williams's Library, MS 38.98.46–57. Letters from John Newton to David Jennings, 1750-1754, 1760, including an appeal to rewrite the 1662 Prayer Book prayers in plain English for sailors!

Harvard University. Newton, John, 1725-1807. Olney hymns: manuscript, 1777-1779. MS Eng 1317. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Lambeth Palace Library. Large collection of Newton mss: correspondence (including letters written at sea, MS 2935), sermons (including Amazing Grace sermon, MS 2940) – enter 'Newton Papers' in catalogue search.

Princeton University Library, CO199. John Newton Diary (two diaries covering 1750-1756 and 1773-1805), Neilson Campbell Hannay Collection of William Cowper.

The Cowper and Newton Museum, Annotated Letters to a Wife, John Newton, 1793 (Newton's personal copy which he annotated up to 1803); Annotated A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, Wilberforce, William, 1797 ['a present from the author' to Newton: 'one of the best books (in my judgment) extant']

The Morgan Library and Museum, MA 731, John Newton Diary 1756-1772


Secondary Works

Aitken, Jonathan, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (Continuum 2007, Crossway, 2007, 2013)

Cecil, Richard, The Life of John Newton, ed Marylynn Rouse (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2000)

Hindmarsh, Bruce, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1996; Eerdmans, 2000)

Murray, Todd, Beyond Amazing Grace (Evangelical Press, 2006, reprinted Great Writing, 2017). An excellent summary of topics from John Newton's writings.

Pollock, John, Abolition (Day One, 2007). Pollock did not have access to Newton's correspondence with Wilberforce when he wrote his classic biography of Wilberforce. This booklet updates his account, written in a popular style.

Pollock, John, Amazing Grace: John Newton's Story (Hodder and Stoughton, 1981). Reprinted as Newton: the Liberator (Kingsway Publications, 2000)

Pollock, John, William Wilberforce (London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1997 – New Edition Kingsway Publications, 2007) This is a popular biography of the MP, although it was a great pity Pollock did not have access to the full range of private mss, including Newton's correspondence with Wilberforce at the time.

Rouse, Marylynn, A Double Portion of my Thoughts and Prayers, John Newton's Letters to William Wilberforce, The Midwestern Journal of Theology (Fall 2018): 15-41

Wilberforce, Robert and Samuel, Editors, The Correspondence of William Wilberforce (London: 1840). See Preface for their indignation that in Clarkson's History of Abolition (1808) he wrongly supposed that he had introduced Newton to Wilberforce and that in his Strictures (1838) 'Mr Newton's name is silently omitted.'

Wilberforce, Robert Isaac and Samuel, The Life of William Wilberforce (London: 1838)


Parliamentary Reports

Reports of the Lords of the Committee of Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations; submitting ... the evidence and information they have collected in consequence of His Majesty's Order in Council, dated the 11th of February, 1788, concerning the present state of the Trade to Africa, and particularly the Trade in Slaves, etc. Great Britain, Board of Trade (London, 1789) Link

Minutes of the evidence taken before a committee of the House of Commons, being a Select Committee, appointed on the 23d day of April 1790: to take the examination of the several witnesses ordered by the House to attend the Committee of the whole House, to whom it is referred to consider further of the circumstances of the slave trade (1790). [Also in: House of Commons sessional papers of the eighteenth century, ed Sheila Lambert (Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources, c1975), vol 73, 1790]

An Abstract of the Evidence delivered before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in the Years 1790 and 1791 (London: James Philips, 1791)


Other Links

Amazing Grace Country. Based in Buncrana, on the shores of Lough Swilly, on the northern coast of Ireland, where Newton first set foot as a believer after his conversion in a storm at sea in 1748. The Amazing Grace Festival is held here annually around the anniversary of his arrival on 8 April.

The John Newton Project. Large range of previously unpublished material by Newton, with additional resources.

The Amazing Grace Experience. Christian tourist centre depicting Newton's life, especially his meeting here in St Kitts with fellow believer Captain Alexander Clunie, which accelerated his growth in faith.

The Cowper and Newton Museum. Houses artefacts of both William Cowper and John Newton in Orchard Side, the former home of Cowper. Displays, shop and '18th century' garden.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. Searchable information on almost 36,000 slaving voyages, including Newton's Duke of Argyle and The African.

The Literary Encyclopedia, article on John Newton, by Marylynn Rouse (subscription)

St Mary Woolnoth, London. Website combines with St Margaret Lothbury. Newton ministered here from 1779 to his death in 1807. He was buried in this church. A plaque sculpted by John Bacon displays the epitaph Newton wrote for himself. When Bank Tube Station was being constructed the vaults at St Mary Woolnoth had to be emptied. Newton and his wife were re-interred at his church in Olney, where their tomb behind the church has the same epitaph inscribed on it.

St Peter and St Paul, Olney. Newton ministered here from 1764 to 1779. His last sermon was in January 1780.

The Contributor

Marylynn Rouse is Director of The John Newton Project, and an Honorary Fellow of Leicester University.

E-mail: admin@johnnewton.org
Website: https://www.johnnewton.org/

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