Great Churchmen (No 5)
Chapter 2 by A W Parsons
"Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa (He) was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour ]ems Christ, Preserved, Restored, Pardoned."- Newton's own epitaph in S t . Mary Woolnoth.
He now became mate of an English slave-ship and while on this vessel picked up a copy of The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, which led him to ask, “What if these things are true?” That night his ship was wrecked and he tells us how he tossed about for hours on the wreck, crying, “Too late! Too late! For if these things are true what mercy can there be for me?” At last he thought of God's promise of forgiveness and in his agony the prayer burst from his lips: “ God, the God of my mother, have mercy on me!”
“That tenth of March,” says Newton, “is a day much to be remembered by me; and I have never suffered it to pass unnoticed since the year 1748. For on that day the Lord came from on high and delivered me out of the deep waters.” On that night of storm and tempest he sought mercy and found it. He was then twenty-three.
From that time he began to live a different life. He landed on the shores of Ireland a changed man. He had also about this time a wonderful dream, in which he received from a stranger a mystic ring, the pledge of safety and peace. He foolishly dropped it in the sea, through the subtle temptation of an enemy, to have it restored by One who promised thenceforth to keep it for him. Newton interpreted the ring to mean his own personal salvation, which could be secured to the end only by the gracious care of God.
During the next six years, while Captain of a slaver, he devoted himself to improving his education, especially in Latin and Hebrew and in the study of the Holy Bible. After several escapes from death, which confirmed his belief in God's special providence over him he journeyed to Kent and married his beloved Mary Catlett on February 1st 1750. He was nearly twenty-five years of age. She was twenty-one. They lived together for many years with increasing affection and unimpaired happiness, although they had no children. His letters to her after he resumed his voyages not only opened his own eyes more fully to “the truth as it is in Jesus” but led to his wife's conversion as well.
Critics of Evangelicalism have drawn attention to the incongruity of a Christian being in charge of a slave-ship at all, and Newton has further played into the hands of hostile critics by declaring that he never experienced sweeter and more frequent hours of divine communion than during his last two voyages to Guinea. At first, in harmony with the ideas of the age in which he lived, he had no scruples about the slave-trade. Slavery in his day was the biggest vested interest in England, just as the drink traffic is to-day. The whole fortunes of Liverpool and Bristol were based upon it and many of the most earnest religious people, clerical and lay, were financially interested in it. In The Evangelical Movement and the English Church, Dr. L. Elliott Binns writes: “Whitefield himself was the owner of slaves, and indeed resented efforts made to restrict the trading in them; whilst
John Newton never seems to have seen the least wrong in the traffic or offered a single word in his defence for having practised it.”
But Newton's conscience was being awakened. He wrote: “I considered myself a sort of gaoler or turnkey and I was sometimes shocked with an employment that was perpetually conversant with chains, bolts and shackles. In this view I petitioned that the Lord would be pleased to fix me in a more humane calling.” He now tried to deal both justly and mercifully with his crew and his cargo. Thomas Wright of Olney declares of Newton: “In after years he himself unsparingly denounced the slave-trade, and confessed with shame that he had formerly been an accessory to so much misery and mischief.” Newton himself wrote: “Perhaps what I have said of myself may be applicable to the nation at large. The slave-trade was always unjustifiable, but inattention and self-interest prevented for a time the evil from being perceived.” In 1763 he wrote: “The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that, knowing the state of this vile traffic to be as I have 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, for I am sure had I thought of the slave-trade then as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it.”
Criticism is all too easy; but are there to-day no Christian shareholders in armament firms, or Christian shareholders in breweries ? And is there now no such thing as industrial serfdom? At all events, five years later Newton left the slave-trade and became for nine years tide surveyor at Liverpool at a salary of £100 a year. Here he continued his studies and gradually acquired a competent knowledge of theology, though he never even dreamed of going to a University.
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