Summary: When the spiritual life of the Christian Church is at a low ebb God raises up chosen servants to a revival of the Christian faith.


The stories of men and women’s lives recorded in Scripture are often used in sermons to illustrate truths to help us in our own spiritual pilgrimage. The biographies of Christian leaders in more recent times can also be very interesting and helpful. I read the life of John Newton who died just 200 years ago. He has a fascinating story which is the basis of my address today and I hope it will be as helpful to you as it was to me.

Although the spiritual condition of a nation may be discouraging the situation hasn’t gone unnoticed by our Lord as the Head of the Church. He knows what is required and he raises up his chosen servants as his instruments to revive the Christian Church. This is seen in the Church of the Old Testament through the many prophets of Israel, with their clarion call to repentance and announcing the promised Messiah. It happened 500 years ago in the Reformation led by Martin Luther. In our own lifetime there’s been the Charismatic Renewal. And what of today? All we can say is ‘Lord, do it again!’

The 18th century produced some great men of God. The spiritual life of the Established Church in Britain was at a low ebb and in great need of revival. However, God had not given up and, in the words often found in Scripture in such circumstances, ‘visited his people’ (cf. Ruth 1:6; Luke 1:68). God did this by raising up men of faith for this purpose, such as John and Charles Wesley and their friend and colleague in early Methodism, George Whitefield. Each of them left an enduring legacy to the Christian Church, the Wesleys in the Methodist Societies and eventually the Methodist Church. John Newton’s legacy was rather different. Like John and Charles, Newton was a clergyman of the Established Church and all three had much in common in theology and in fellowship, especially in their early days, but John had quite a different career path, in his background and in God’s service. He made a great contribution to Christian life and witness in society and which remains a blessing to millions all over the world.

John was born in 1725 in London. His father was a respected sea captain and consequently was often away from home which resulted in the father-son relationship being somewhat distant, although he loved his son and was a forgiving parent over the years when John behaved rashly or made mistakes. His mother was a devoted Christian and from a young child taught him to believe in God’s omnipotence, to fear his judgement and to accept the Bible as the Word of God, a foundation which he never forgot although as a teenager he rebelled against these teachings. We must thank God for Christian mothers for their example and patient teaching of their children. The Apostle Paul paid generous tribute to the mother and grandmother of his colleague Timothy. The truths received may appear to be dormant for years but then the Holy Spirit reminds the wayward offspring of what they learned in their youth and is the means of a return to faith.

As a young man of 18 John was something of a dropout. His father found him a job with a friend, a Liverpool merchant. He was to travel to Jamaica where he would be trained as a manager on a sugar plantation but then he received a letter from a cousin and close friend of his late mother, to visit the cousin in Maidstone. When he arrived the door was opened by the eldest daughter, Mary, a beautiful girl, known as Polly. He was quite smitten by her although she was only thirteen years of age, as he later wrote: ‘Almost at the first sight of this girl I felt an affection for her which never abated.’ All he could do was to extend his stay, first by a few hours, then by a few days and eventually to a duration of three weeks as he couldn’t bear parting and then spending four or five years in Jamaica and so he missed the job opportunity. His father was furious but arranged for John to sail under a ship’s master, a family friend. As a common sailor he soon drifted into the bad habits of his shipmates. As he put it: ‘I was making large strides towards a total apostasy from God.’

Several months later he revisited Polly’s home and again failed to turn up for an appointment for an officer’s posting on board a merchant ship and while walking around Chatham was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. He was so upset at not being with Polly that he deserted ship and was flogged for desertion and only his love for the 13-year old girl restrained his desire to commit suicide and murdering his captain! Eventually he was exchanged for sailors on a slave-carrying ship but continued his wild behaviour and had to leave his ship to work for a shore-based slaver in Sierra Leone in West Africa. He fell out with his employer and was himself imprisoned in chains as a slave and was brutally treated.

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