Great Churchmen (No 5)
Chapter 6 by A W Parsons
“My race at Olney is nearly finished. I am about to form a connection for life with one Mary Woolnoth, a reputed London saint in Lombard Street." - Newton to his friend Bull.
In 1780 he was offered the Rectory of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, and he always said that he would have declined it but for the fact that difficulties had arisen between himself and his parishioners. The cause of the trouble did him credit. In October, 1777, a fire-the successor of many
previous ones-had broken out in Olney. The wooden cottages with their straw thatches were soon well alight; but for a sudden change of wind half the place would have been burned down. Newton ascribed the extinction of the fire to prayer rather than to water; but he was active in measures of relief for the homeless, at once promising to raise sixty pounds and actually obtaining two hundred. At a meeting he suggested that the custom of illuminating the houses on Guy Fawkes’ day, “almost peculiar to this town,” should be discontinued. This was approved at the meeting, but was opposed by the villagers. On the 5th of November “many put candles in their windows who had not done so
in former years; and some who had, doubled their number. This gave encouragement to the sons of Belial, and when night came on there was much riot and confusion. A wild lawless mob paraded the streets, breaking windows, and extorting money from one end of the town to the other.”
Forty or fifty men, “deep in liquor,” marched upon the Vicarage. Newton receiving warning, and, having been in many tighter corners in his life, was in favour of facing his assailants; but the excitement so affected Mrs. Newton, whose health was poor, that he sent out an envoy with money
and so made peace with his adversaries while they were yet on the way. He felt this deeply. He had sincerely laboured for the true good of the people of Olney and he had a real affection for them. He spoke of “dear Olney” to the end; but the events of that unhappy Guy Fawkes’ night led him
to accept the call to Lombard Street when it came.
Some difficulty arose on his being presented to the living of St. Mary Woolnoth from Mr. Thornton's right of presentation being claimed by a nobleman. The question was, therefore, at length brought before the House of Lords, and decided in favour of Mr. Thornton. Newton preached his first sermon at St. Mary Woolnoth from Eph. 4.15: “speaking the truth in love.” It contained an affectionate address to his new parishioners and was printed afterwards for their use. In 1781 he published a book which some consider to be the most valuable of all his works. He had completed it
at Olney and Cowper had given it the name Cardiphonia. In it you may read his letters, which were in very truth the voice of his heart. Canon Overton thinks that the greatest service Newton did to the Christian Church was as spiritual adviser to those who desired to rise from the death of sin unto the
life of righteousness.
Mr. Newton remained Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth until his death in 1807, living for a time in Charles Square, Hoxton, then a pleasant suburb, and afterwards moving to Coleman Street Buildings, close to the scene of his labours. Whitefield's Tabernacle had been opened, amid the fields and gardens of Tottenham Court Road, as far back as 1756. Wesley, besides acquiring Duke Street Chapel and several lesser ones, had in 1778 built the “cathedral” of Methodism in City Road. Lady Huntingdon's chaplains preached regularly at the Lock Hospital. But as yet there were in London few Evangelical clergymen engaged in normal parochial work. The most notable had been Henry Venn, who went to Huddersfield in 1750.
Before Newton's appointment there had been fierce opposition to the few Evangelical “enthusiasts” who had settled “cures” in London as well as against the itinerant preachers. For example in 1750 William Romaine had been dismissed from his appointment as morning preacher at St. George's, Hanover Square, because he attracted too large and ungenteel a congregation, to the discomfort of the regular attenders! There was even worse trouble, involving scenes of riot, when he became Lecturer at St. Dunstan's-in-the-West.
By 1780, however, the period of active hostility was over, though it remained for Newton to show that an Evangelical clergyman in the heart of the City, close to the Bank of England and Royal Exchange, could win the respect, soon ripening into affection, of all classes of his parishioners.
Many strangers came to hear him, so that the parishioners complained that their seats were either taken or that they could not get to them for the crowds in the aisles! He wrote to his wife, who was still at Olney, that one of the Churchwardens had proposed with many apologies “my
letting another clergyman preach now and then for me.” He hinted “that it would be no expense to me, and thought that if it was uncertain whether I preached or no the people would not throng the Church so much. I could not admire the scheme.”
In a comparatively small London he became a metropolitan figure and through his spreading fame as a preacher and a writer, a national one. He never outgrew a sense of wonder at his position. “That one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves should be
plucked from his forlorn state of exile on the Coast of Africa, and at length be appointed Minister of the parish of the First Magistrate of the first city in the world-that he should there not only testify of rich grace, but stand up as a singular instance and monument of it-that he should be enabled to
record it in his history, preachings, and writings to the world at large-is a fact I can contemplate with admiration, but never sufficiently estimate.”
He would have been less human had he not felt a certain pride, and he was essentially human. Therein lay the secret of his success. He was no great preacher. His voice did not carry well and his gestures and mannerisms were awkward. But he never lost his humanity, his wisdom, or the
simplicity of one who had seen God's wonders in the deep. Here are some of his wise sayings:
“If three angels were sent to earth, they would feel perfect indifference as to who should perform the part of prime minister, parish minister, or watchman.”
“One reason why we must not attempt to pull up the tares which grow among the wheat is that we have not the skill for the work: like a weeder who Mrs. Newton employed in my garden at Olney, who for weeds pulled up some of Mrs. Newton's favourite flowers.”
“A wise man looks upon men as he does upon horses, and considers their comparisons of tide, wealth and place but as harness.”
“Don't tell me your feelings. A traveller would like fine weather, but if he be a man of business, he will go on.”
It was Newton who wrote the witty defence of Forms of Prayer :
Crito freely will rehearse
Forms of praise and prayer in verse.
Why should Crito then suppose
Forms are sinful when in prose?
Must my form be deemed a crime
Merely for the want of rhyme?
The year 1790 proved for him a sad and eventful one. On November 7th died his “best friend,” Mr. John Thornton, and on the 5th of December, he lost his beloved wife, with whom he had lived upwards of forty years. After her death he enjoyed no more fine weather but, being a traveller on
business, he went on. He was in his pulpit as usual on the Sunday morning following his bereavement, that his flock might know he believed the Gospel he preached. For several years after her death he used to write verses on the anniversary, which he published in a small tract, “Ebenezer,” and some of them are very beautiful.
Forget her! No; can four short years
The deep impression wear away?
She still before my mind appears,
Abroad, at home, by night, by day!
Oft as with those she loved I meet,
Her looks, her voice, her words recur,
or if alone I walk the street
Still something leads my thoughts to her.
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