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An Interview with Tony Reinke on John Newton’s Legacy

Today’s guest post is from Tony Reinke, author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. Tony, a researcher, writer, and content strategist for Desiring God, lives with his wife and three children in Minneapolis.

What compelled you to begin researching John Newton?

For several years, I helped serve the pastors of a small denomination in the United States, and Newton was one of the historical men I chose to study as a way of becoming familiar with the questions and pressures of pastoral ministry. I found him very readable and relevant to the contemporary needs and challenges faced by pastors.

Newton was not theologically educated (formally), but he leveraged his biblical insight and his street smarts about the world and his own heart to all of Christian life and to his rich pastoral counsel. He is a unique voice in church history for that reason. And so I really got to know Newton over those years, and the deeper I dove into Newton’s letters, the more I loved reading his works. The more I read, the more I became impressed with the cohesion I saw in the fragments of his pastoral care. The more I began studying Newton, the more secondary sources I began to read, and the more secondary resources I read, the more clear it became how difficult of a time others have had in trying to fit Newton’s pastoral counsel together. The challenge of fitting his works together drew me in even further to his writings.

Most people know about “Amazing Grace” and Newton’s work to abolish slavery. What would people be surprised to learn?

John Newton’s 43-year pastorate is surprisingly neglected in light of his amazing conversion story from debauchery, his popular hymn, and his work to abolish slavery later in his life. Those 43 years of pastoral care are my field of particular interest. When you look at his pastorate and his incredible letter-writing ministry, you see a man closely tuned to Scripture, tuned to his own heart, and tuned to the hearts of his friends. This is the street-smartness I mentioned earlier. Newton takes what he sees in Scripture, in his own heart, and in the spiritual experiences of others, mixes that up, and then applies all that learning to pastoral situations.

Newton also maintained a very clear understanding of what Christian maturity looks like, and he kept Christ central at all times. I am grateful for so many things in Newton’s life and ministry, but his Christ-centered approach to the Christian life is probably his most overlooked gift to the modern church. It’s also the theme of the book I’m currently writing for Crossway in the Theologians on the Christian Life series. There’s a profound simplicity in Newton’s understanding of the ultimate aims of the Christian life, but he avoids reductionism, and he allows for a full range of complexities and unique experiences God designs for different Christians. He is brilliant at maintaining this tricky balance.

When Newton became a Christian, he still worked in the slave industry. Why did it take so long for his thinking to change? And what prompted the change?

Yes, he sure did. This was tragic. Newton lived and worked in the slave trade during its most hellish and inhumane era. The torture and mutilation of black men and the raping of black women were horrific events forever burned into his mind. Newton dates his rather dramatic conversion to March 21, 1748, and yet he would captain three slave-ship runs to Africa between 1748 and 1754. In those early days, as a Christian, he saw nothing illegal about the trade! But he did see the inhumaneness of it, and felt increasing distaste for the “business.” For whatever it’s worth, he resolved to treat all the slaves under his care with dignity, and it appears he succeeded in comparison to the norm. But his actions are not excusable on this basis.

Although Newton says he never saw much money for all his labors, the slave trade attracted gold-diggers and wealth-seekers who did become wealthy, and whenever riches are at stake, the evil of things gets glossed over in culture (a lesson for us all). Material prosperity blinds us to evils, and slavery “was like a smell you couldn’t smell after a while” (Keller). Newton was very much a man of his times. He needed work, and the seas were a way for him to make his living. As I mentioned, he saw his work as a legitimate occupation. In fact, Newton believed he had been divinely appointed to the “vocation,” although he was earnestly praying for a different line of work. He was disturbed by what he saw in his business of “chains, bolts, and shackles,” and wanted to leave the inhumaneness of it all, but he also seemed equally concerned (or more concerned!) with being away from home for long stretches of time.

Early after his conversion, Newton appears to be somewhat oblivious to the evils of the slave trade while he was part of it. He begins living with very serious private regrets beginning in the early 1770s, when he could no longer reconcile the Gospel he loved and the trade he formerly engaged in, a distant memory for him by this time. A meeting with William Wilberforce on Sunday, October 28, 1787, seems to have ignited both men to take public action. From that meeting, Wilberforce’s focus on abolition becomes clear and Newton’s commitment to help out takes public shape. From that moment on, Newton is determined to leverage his firsthand experience of slavery’s evils in order to end it.

Slavery was abolished 10 months before Newton died, a fitting capstone of his life. On his tombstone, Newton self-identifies himself as “A Servant of Slaves in Africa,” a horrible memory from his earlier life (1746–47), when he found himself physically enslaved in Africa (what he calls his “African Egypt”). It’s an important factor to keep in mind. Newton fought against slavery out of something of a personal taste of the brutality experienced as one enslaved and enslaver.

4. How did Newton and William Wilberforce mutually benefit from their friendship?

It’s hard to say just how far they benefited from one another, but as you can see, their relationship was critical. I’m not sure Newton would have gone public in abolishing slavery without Wilberforce. Wilberforce might have totally turned away from politics without Newton’s insistence that he stay engaged for the glory of God. Pastor Newton, 35 years Wilberforce’s elder, first met Wilberforce when Wilberforce was 11 and noted in his journal an exceptional promise in the young lad. Newton would later become the friend and the spiritual advisor to Wilberforce in his adult years, including that important meeting in 1787. The two of them together seems to be the key in the success of the whole, but I must leave the details of their relationship to abler biographers to explain.

5. What question do you wish we asked you?

How relevant are the pastoral writings (letters) of Newton for the modern church and modern Christian leaders?

And if you asked, I would illustrate the value of Newton with a brief survey of the influence of Newton in the early sermons of Timothy Keller in Manhattan (1989–94). If you own these works in Logos (and you should really consider it), you’ll see Newton appearing in dozens of places on a vast array of pastoral questions and topics as they get raised in Keller’s preaching ministry. Once you pick up on his influence in these early sermons, you begin to notice Newton’s influence in Keller’s later works, like in The Meaning of Marriage on the topic of how easy it is to project idolatrous expectations on spouses, which is a major theme Keller has learned from Newton’s letters.

There are other ways to show Newton’s relevance, of course, but watching the letters of an eighteenth-century pastor in England (Newton) find their way into the sermons of a twentieth-century preacher in Manhattan (Keller) is especially illuminating, I think.

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Start your study of Newton’s life with The Works of John Newton, vol. 1, or pick up the complete six-volume collection of Newton’s works.

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Logos Staff

Logos is the largest developer of tools that empower Christians to go deeper in the Bible.

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Written by Logos Staff