July 22nd, 2008
Bull, Josiah. The Life of John Newton. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, reset edition 2007. 322pp. $14.00. Buy From Westminster Bookstore
As best I can tell, Josiah Bull only wrote this biography of John Newton and edited another book entitled The Letters of John Newton. This biography was first published in 1868 under the title But Now I See. It was first published by Banner of Truth in 1998 with the title But Now I See: The Life of John Newton. This particular edition consists of a resetting of the typeset; i.e., the font was changed.
Summary of The Life of John Newton
Bull breaks down Newton’s life into three parts: Early life and residence at Liverpool, Curate of Olney, and Rector of St. Mary of Woolnoth. In 20 pages, we move from his birth in 1725 to his marriage to Miss Mary Catlett on 12 February 1750. Glossing over some of the finer details of his life, we learn that he went to sea with his dad when he was only 11. His dad passed away and he later transferred to a slave ship where he was abused by the commander. He was rescued and became commander of his own ship. His conversion took place on 10 May 1748, a day he would celebrate for the rest of his life. He “quitted the sea” in 1754 where he had served as a slave trader due in large part to a serious illness.
By 1757 he was struggling with a call to the ministry upon which he answered that call in 1764 when he became the Curate of Olney. Josiah shares with us how Newton sympathized with the likes of Whitefield and Wesley and how he longed to be a part of spiritual awakening that was taking place.
Newton suffered much for his faith during this time. For example, he lost all of his property, his wife became very ill, he became extremely ill, he watched as his friends began to pass away from various illnesses, and he faced charges of meddling with politics (see Wilberforce). In 1779, he accepted a call to become the rector of St. Mary Woolnoth. Of special note to most readers is that it was during this time at Olney that Newton wrote Amazing Grace.
He continued his work for the final 27 years of his life at S. Mary Woolnoth where he died a gradual death in 1807. During his life, John Newton “ran with the big dogs” if I may use that phrase. He became friends with the likes of William Cowper, William Wilberforce, William Carey (a lot of William’s!), George Whitefield (who became a mentor of sorts to Newton), John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards though he really didn’t get to know Edwards as much as the rest. It was almost as if John Newton was a “Forrest Gump” type because he never sought to be what he became. John simply wanted to see the grace of God explode among the nations during the awakening that was happening during his life. The aim of his regenerated life was to share the gospel and give all glory and honor to God.
While Newton is most known today for his being a slave trader saved by grace and then writing the ultimate song about grace, there is so much more to the man that must be understood to better appreciate his works (especially his hymns).
Critical Evaluation of The Life of John Newton
Can one begin to be critical of a work such as this? I was unable to find anything that would pose a negative to the reading of this book. I am intentionally sketchy on the summary because there is so much in the book that I did not know that would be of interest to the modern reader that a simple summary would not suffice. It is my prayer that you would pick up a copy of this book to read.
Banner of Truth has done us the favor of keeping the original language from 1868. This helps us to “feel” the life of John Newton even if it may be difficult at times to read. By the time this book was written in1868 there were already a handful of biographies of John Newton. Josiah Bull felt it was necessary to write this one because a diary that was unknown to previous biographers had been found. Another element that Bull added was an oral history handed down by friends and family that the other biographers did not have access to. For these reasons, and the test of time, this biography of John Newton stands, in my humble opinion, over all the rest.
For fourteen dollars, this is a must own biography of one of the giants in the faith. It is important that the modern Christian understand that John Newton was more than a slave trader who wrote a great song. By reading this biography, they will quickly see what drove the man to do such great things. John Newton can be called as David was, “A Man after God’s own heart.” His entire regenerated life had the aroma of a living sacrifice as per Romans 12:1. To be able to peer into the life of John Newton is amazing grace indeed.