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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition

D. Bruce Hindmarsh


I readily confess that I have for a long time entertained a deep admiration for John Newton, and doubtless this was based on a few biographies, that were probably more hagiographies, which I read about him when I was a child. His memory is warmed by the fact a good friend gave me a full leather bound set of his works at the last prayer meeting we attended together – shortly before his death in 2008.

This book was jointly the most challenging and the most complete biography of Newton that I have read. Hindmarsh identifies three previous types of biography: sympathetic biographers, biographers who are interested in William Cowper, and historians. This biography is not an easy popular read but it is a very interesting piece of technical history that presents a more rounded historical accurate picture of the man. I would also confess that I was a little way into the book before I began to take to it.

The book is set between the conversions of John Wesley in 1738 and William Wilberforce in 1785. The first chapter deals with the Authentic Narrative (Newtons account of his conversion). It shows the effect that Mary Catlett (his wife) had on him, his links with Whitefield and the difficulty he experienced seeking episcopal ordination. The first chapter has extensive analysis of his sources and styles in presenting the account of his conversion.

The second chapter deals with his theological formation and shows how he moved towards Calvinism. It shows how he linked up with others who were Calvinists in a variety of denominations including Calvinistic Methodism and a variety of Baptists.  The third chapter deals with his ordination crisis between 1757 and 1764 and enlarges on the difficulties already alluded to in Chapter 1. At various points he almost left the established church for one of the varieties of dissent, as he was being suspected of ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘methodism’. He continued to seek ordination while working in Liverpool and the desire to give up a well paid job and take up a poorly paid pastorate only seemed to confirm the fears about his ‘enthusiasm’. Finally Thomas Haweis  seemed to open doors for him into the ministry and prevailed on Lord Dartmouth to offer him the living of Olney. At first he was just the curate at Olney as the vicar, Moses Browne had chosen not to resign the living when he had moved to Morden College.  The fourth chapter tackles the defining of Newton’s evangelical theology and picks up the differences within English Calvinism in the period. There is a treatment of the debate between those attached to Andrew Fuller and those with John Gill, as well as those who were Arminian and those who believed in Hypothetical Universalism (Doddridge). It then picks up on the discussions around perfectionism and antinomianism.

Chapter 5 covers the sixteen year period of the Olney curacy (1764-1780) and places Olney in its social and ecclesiastical setting.  Afterwards, he would move to St Marys in Woolnoth. Chapter 6 tackles his private and devotional exercises which are recorded in his diaries. You see the practice of his weekly exercises and how they were supplemented monthly with examination before he went to the Lord’s table. Chapter 7 looks at his hymns and songs, with an explanation of the occasion and context of the Olney hymns and an examination of wider evangelical hymnody.  Chapter 8 deals with Newton in London (1780 to 1790) where he enjoyed one of the most prestigious and important benefices in the country. All around are churches and there is an interesting analysis of the evangelicalism in the capital, including the presence of men like William Romaine.  

If you are a fan of Newton’s and want to understand his life in its true historical setting with a proper modern critical biography then this book is for you. If you want a popular heart-warming piece of evangelical hagiography that will uplift and encourage you then this is probably not the place to start.