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Letters of John Newton

18 March 2020 13:14

Letters of John Newton

Banner of Truth

The Letters of John Newton reviewed here needs to be distinguished from Select Letters of John Newton, also published by the Banner of Truth. This is a much larger and quite separate selection.

It was first published in 1869 and was edited by Josiah Bull, one of Newton’s biographers. It has a number of attractive features. One is the book itself as a book. The dust wrap, the typesets, the binding, the quality of the paper, all make it a joy to handle and read.

Another is the wide range of correspondents (thirty five in total) to whom the letters are addressed. There are letters to men and women, old and young, converted and unconverted, close friends and recent acquaintances, gospel ministers and members of the aristocracy, some who are still well-known today (such as the poet William Cowper) and many who are otherwise unknown.

A third attractive feature is the editor’s brief biographical sketches of the correspondents. It can be a frustrating experience reading letters to people whose identity has been suppressed. Here, by contrast, we learn not only to whom Newton is writing but something of their life story. It enhances our appreciation of the letters to see how skilfully Newton suits his counsel to these different individuals.

The letters themselves, of course, are the book’s supreme attraction. Newton has been described as ‘the letter writer par excellence of the Evangelical Revival’. He loved writing letters and exercised a remarkable ministry by means of them. He could say indeed, ‘It is the Lord’s will that I should do most by my letters’.

Those of you who are familiar with them know already how valuable they are. What may you expect if they are new to you? For one thing, a superb English style. Newton wrote well. At a literary level his letters are a delight. There is much of human interest in them too, especially in those addressed to his close friends William Cowper and William Bull. They give us a glimpse of the whole man, humorous as well as serious, devout but definitely not dull.

It is in their spiritual helpfulness, however, that their greatest value lies. They come from the pen of a wonderful physician of souls. I would especially highlight Newton’s insights into the believer’s ongoing conflict with his all-too-sinful heart. Out of a knowledge both of his own heart and of the Saviour’s ways with His people he writes with refreshing frankness and abounding hope. As you read, you say to yourself, ‘Here is a man who knows my heart, who is intimate with my struggles with sin’, and you are comforted by the fellowship of a fellow-sufferer and helped by his wise and practical counsel.

I cannot recommend this warmly enough.

David Campbell