Anyone familiar with the writings of John Newton (1725-1803) will welcome this collection of his letters to John Ryland Jr, Baptist pastor in Northampton and Bristol. Most of the letters were either previously unpublished or had appeared only in rare nineteenth-century periodicals. The 83 letters span the period from 1771 to 1803, by which time Newton was nearly blind.
The letters have been collected and carefully and lovingly annotated by Dr Grant Gordon from Canada, who has spent many years on the work. Historical footnotes, and connecting notes between the letters, identify the people and incidents referred to, and point towards relevant passages in the various biographies of Newton. The book is a mine of information on Newton and on Ryland and his circle, but it is a pity that there is no bibliography. There is, however, a good index. The only historical point on which the reviewer felt slightly dissatisfied regarded Mrs Newton’s sister and brother-in-law, the Cunninghams, who moved to Scotland. Some information about their religious connection in Scotland would have been welcome.
A number of the earlier letters refer to items in The Gospel Magazine, to which both Newton and Ryland were contributors. This magazine commenced in 1766 and still appears. Most of the early issues have recently been made available on The Gospel Magazine website. The footnote on pages 78-79 about The Gospel Magazine is not quite accurate. As far as the reviewer can determine, it appeared from 1766 to 1784 (with a slight change of title in 1774) and was in abeyance from 1785 to 1795. It resumed in 1796 and has continued without a break since then. The 1784 crisis was connected with bitter disputes arising from John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine, which had been started in 1778 in direct opposition to the Calvinistic Gospel Magazine.
Interesting as the letters are historically, their main value, however, lies in their spiritual content, and it is here that John Newton excels. They are full of the sanctified common sense for which he is so renowned. Every letter has something useful and edifying to say. One piece of advice which struck the reviewer is to have two heaps, one of 'unintelligibles' and another of 'incurables' (p 154).
Newton is here borrowing from Cotton Mather and a helpful footnote gives Mather’s counsel in full:
It may not be amiss for you to have two heaps: a heap of Unintelligibles and a heap of Incurables. Every now and then you will meet with something or other that may pretty much distress your thoughts, but the shortest way with vexations will be to throw them into the heap they belong to, and be no more distressed about them. You will meet with some unaccountable and incomprehensible things, particularly in the conduct of many people. Throw them into your heap of Unintelligibles; leave them there. Trouble your mind no further; hope the best or think no more about them. You will meet with some unpersuadable people; no counsel, no reason will do anything upon the obstinates. Throw them into the heap of Incurables. Leave them there. And go on to do, as well as you can, what you have to do. Let not the crooked things that cannot be made straight encumber you.
Later Newton amends his advice slightly:
As to your trials, I will not, with Dr Mather, advise you to cast them on the heap of Incurables, rather cast them upon the Lord. He can make the crooked straight. When we have done what else we can, submission is our part. (pp 181-2)
The one area in which Newton’s advice is less profitable is ecclesiastical matters. He confesses to a 'latitudinarian spirit':
I profess myself to be of no party, and to love all of every party who love the Lord our saviour in sincerity. If they preach the truth in love, live as they preach, and are wise and watchful to win souls, and to feed the flock, I care not much whether they are called Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Churchmen, Kirkmen, or Methodists. I desire to rejoice in their success, on every side. I believe the zealots of all parties pity or blame me for my latitudinarian spirit, but the moderate and peaceable of all parties show me kindness. (p 371)
The Covenanters were martyred for just the sort of things that Newton disregards, but we think that it was they who had the more biblical understanding. The wisdom that is from above is 'first pure' and then 'peaceable' (James 3:17). Christ’s servants are to teach men to 'observe all things whatsoever' that Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:20).
The book is beautifully produced to the usual Banner of Truth standard and it would make a good present. The only blemish is the excess of footnotes. Historical information is one thing, but definitions of common, or uncommon but obvious words, and identification of well-known texts is another. Page 139, for a typical example, has footnotes defining 'counters' as 'toy money used in games'; 'inquietude' as 'restlessness or uneasiness'; and identifying 'vanity of vanities' as Ecclesiastes 1:2. In a world of dictionaries, concordances and the internet, this is unnecessary. This trifle aside, we commend Dr Gordon and Banner of Truth and pray the Lord’s blessing on the work.
* Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr.
Grant Gordon (Ed.)
432 pages, clothbound
ISBN 978 1 84871 053 5
Taken with permission from the October 2010 Free Presbyterian Magazine.