Today John Newton is best known for his inspiring hymn "Amazing Grace," which is probably the best known hymn ever written. In his own day he was one of England's most prominent preachers. Before his conversion, Newton's life had become so debauched, irreverent, and immoral that even his fellow sailors were shocked by his conduct and coarse speech. Yet, Newton would come to experience that amazing grace that he wrote about and it transformed his life, and made him a preacher of the Gospel. Newton never ceased to be amazed at God's work in His life, and he frequently admitted that God had used his passionate love for his wife Mary as a motive and means for his spiritual development.
John Falls Head Over Heels
John Newton's and Mary Catlett's mothers had been the best of friends and when the two children were infants had talked about their marrying each other. But Newton's mother died when John was seven, and when his father remarried, the Catletts and Newtons drifted apart. John's father was a sea captain, and John followed his father into a life at sea. When he was seventeen he went to see the Catletts again, and when he laid eyes on fourteen-year-old Mary, he lost his heart to her. For several years John led the life of a rebellious sailor. He became a "freethinker," rejecting the Scriptures and the Christian truths once learned from his mother. His passion for Mary seemed the only element of purity in his life, but he knew he was totally unworthy of her.
The Slave Trader Prays
John was a sailor in the slave trade off the African coast and participated in the cruelties and horrors of that business. On one return voyage to England, Newton was caught in such a fierce storm that all aboard despaired of life. The Scriptures John had once learned at his mother's knee returned to his mind, and he began to hope that Jesus could deliver him, dreadful sinner that he was. For the first time in years John sought the Lord in prayer, and on March 21, 1748, a date he remembered yearly for the rest of his life, as Newton wrote, "the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters." John began to grow as a young Christian, seeking the Lord in prayer and reading and meditating on the Scriptures. Mary recognized the change in her childhood friend; the two were married on February 1, 1750. Their life together for the next forty years was filled with a boundless love; John always recognized this special love was among the greatest of the gifts of Providence.
Marriage Honorable, Comfortable
In 1793, three years after Mary's death, John published a two-volume collection of letters he had sent to Mary over the years. He wanted to give public testimony of thanks to God for such a treasure as his wife, "for uniting our hearts by such tender ties, and for continuing her to me for so long." Newton published his letters to her as a memorial to her and as an example "that marriage, when the parties are united by affection, and the general conduct is governed by religion and prudence, is not only an honorable but a comfortable state."
After his marriage, Newton was captain of his own ship, and he had to be separated from Mary for months at a time. The two corresponded constantly. Repeatedly in his letters John wrote how their love and marriage increased his thankfulness and gratefulness to the Lord:
. . when I indulge myself with a particular thought of you, it usually carries me on farther, and brings me upon my knees to bless the Lord, for giving me such a treasure, and to pray for your peace and welfare . . . when I take up my pen, and begin to consider what I shall say, I am led to think of the goodness of God, who has made you mine, and given me a heart to value you. Thus my love to you, and my gratitude to him, cannot be separated. . . . All other love, that is not connected with a dependence on God, must be precarious. To this want, I attribute many unhappy marriages.
Happy though he was in his love for Mary, Newton never wanted their love to be a substitute for or take the place of their love for God. He felt that many of the problems people had in their marriages were caused by people trying to find all their happiness and fulfillment in a human relationship apart from their relationship with the Lord. While at sea in 1753 John wrote Mary,
You will not be displeased with me for saying, that though you are dearer to me than the aggregate of all earthly comforts, I wish to limit my passion within those bounds which God has appointed. Our love to each other ought to lead us to love him supremely, who is the author and source of all the good we possess or hope for. It is to him we owe that happiness in a marriage state which so many seek in vain, some of whom set out with such hopes and prospects, that their disappointments can be deduced for no other cause, than having placed that high regard on a creature which is only due to the Creator. He therefore withholds his blessing (without which no union can subsist) and their expectations, of course, end in indifference . . .
Nothing Will Remain But . . .
His deep thankfulness for God's gift of Mary's love increased John's desire to live a life full of service to the Lord. His marriage and earthly happiness were never ends in themselves; all God's gifts, including marriage, were to be used to prepare for eternity. God's will, not their own, should always guide them. In 1754 John wrote Mary,
. . . I consider our union as a peculiar effect and gift of an indulgent Providence, and therefore, as a talent to be improved to higher ends, to the promoting of his will and service upon earth. And to assisting each other to prepare for an eternal state, to which a few years at the farthest will introduce us. Were these points wholly neglected, however great our satisfaction might be for the present, it would be better never to have seen each other; since the time must come when, of all the endearments of our connection, nothing will remain, but the consciousness how greatly we were favored, and how we improved the favors we possessed . . .
Caught in an Uncommon Effect
Six years later Newton was preparing for the ministry in London; ill health prevented Mary from joining him. Newton continued to pour out his love in letters, sometimes expressing the fear that he was guilty of idolatry in that he loved Mary so much. Yet, he recognized all their happiness was from the Lord:
he formed us for each other, and his good Providence brought us together. It is no wonder if so many years, so many endearments, so many obligations, have produced an uncommon effect; and that by long habit, it is become almost impossible for me to draw a breath, of which you are not concerned. If this mutual affection leads us to this fountain from which our blessings flow, and if we can regard each other, and everything about us, with a reference to that eternity to which we are hasting, then we are happy indeed. Then not even death . . . can greatly harm us. Death itself can only part us for a little space, as the pier of a bridge, divides the stream for a few moments but cannot make a real separation. . . . Methinks a regard like ours is destined to flourish in a better world than this, and can never be displayed to its full extent, and advantage, until transplanted into those regions of light and joy, where all that is imperfect, and transient, shall be no more known.
Every Change for the Better
In 1764 John became minister in the little market town of Olney. It was one of the poorest towns in England, with lace-making and farming its main occupations. John brought the Word of God and ministered faithfully to the people. Often he wrote a hymn to accompany his sermons, later collecting them with some of the hymns of his friend William Cowper into the famous Olney Hymns. At times Mary went to visit her relatives or stay with her ailing father while John remained in Olney; his letters continued as they had in earlier years. In 1775, when Mary was staying with her sick father, John wrote to encourage her,
. . . the path of few peoples through life has been more marked with peculiar mercies than yours. How differently has he led us from the way we should have chosen for ourselves! We have had remarkable turns in our affairs; but every change has been for the better; and in every trouble (for we have had our troubles) he has given us effectual help. Shall we not then believe, that he will perfect that which concerns us? When I was an infant, and knew not what I wanted, he sent you into the world to be, first, the principal hinge, upon which my part, and character in life, was to turn and then to be my companion. We have traveled together near twenty-six years; and though we are changeable creatures, and have seen almost every thing change around us, he has preserved our affections, by his blessings, or we might have been weary of each other. How far we have yet to go, we know not . . . . If our lives are prolonged, the shadows of the evening, old age, with its attendant infirmities, will be pressing upon us soon. Yet I hope this uncertain remaining part of our pilgrimage, will upon the whole, be the best; for our God is all-sufficient, and can make us more happy, by the light of his countenance, when our temporal comforts fail, then we never were, when we possessed them to the greatest advantage.
At the end of 1779 the Newtons left Olney for John to become rector at St. Mary Woolnoth's in London. There he ministered for the next quarter century. He became one of the foremost evangelical ministers of the day and worked to abolish the slave trade of which he had once been a part.
On December 15, 1790, Mary died after a long illness. Newton was by her side and later wrote:
When I was sure she was gone, I took off her ring, according to her repeated injunction, and put it upon my own finger. I then kneeled down, with the servants who were in the room, and returned the Lord my unfeigned thanks for her deliverance, and her peaceful dismission.
Newton realized that as a minister he must suffer affliction as an example to fellow Christians, and he had continued to preach throughout Marys illness. He preached her funeral sermon:
I was not supported by lively, sensible considerations, but by being enabled to realize to my mind, some great and leading truths to the word of God. I saw, what indeed I knew before, but never till then so strongly and clearly perceived, that as a sinner, I had no right, and as a believer, I could have no reason, to complain. I considered her as a loan, which He who lent her to me, had a right to resume whenever He pleased; and that as I had deserved to forfeit her every day, from the first; it became me, rather to be thankful that she was spared to me so long . . .
When my wife died, the world seemed to die with her, (I hope, to revive no more). I see little now, but my ministry and my Christian profession, to make a continuance in life, for a single day, desirable; though I am willing to wait my appointed time.
To Newton, the Bank of England was too poor to compensate for the loss of his Mary. On December 21, 1807 John followed Mary in death. To the end, he recognized Mary's love as part of God's amazing grace.
John said of Mary's death: How wonderful must be the moment after death! What a transition did she then experience! She was instantly freed from sin, and all its attendant sorrows, and I trust, instantly admitted to join the heavenly choir. That moment was remarkable to me, likewise. It removed from me, the chief object, which made another day, or hour of life, as to my own personal concern, desirable . . .