The John Newton Project, 2020

1764 was the year in which John Newton took up his ministry at Olney, and this is his diary. Those who have appreciated the earlier publication Ministry on My Mind, which consisted of compilations from 1758, will find this work equally as challenging and profitable. Newton says he was too busy to keep up his diary as he should have, but what we do have is gold. Newton was a devoted husband to Mary (whom he called Polly), but not one husband in a thousand has kept his wife’s birthday in the way Newton did, as a day of gratitude and sanctification.

Newton was a man who lived his life before God. On 4 February he lamented that ‘All the complaints of the children of God flow from two grand causes which mutually produce and run into each other: a want of faith, or a want of faithfulness. I suffer much from both, very much from the latter.’ His prayers, he thought, were often ‘little more than lip-service.’

Regarding preaching, he admitted: ‘I often find it much easier to speak than to feel.’ The reader might recall the account of Newton’s first sermon, before his ordination, in an Independent chapel where he preached without notes, lost his place, and could not continue. In London, in dealing with Acts 10:43, he stated that he preached without notes. By 5 August he preached in the afternoon without a text, and barely any premeditation – not that such a practice is recommended. He felt able to omit a clause from the Prayer Book if need be, and on 14 July was much helped by a Baptist sermon from Exodus 33:15.

All through his diary, there is evidence of Newton’s capacity for a laconic and understated humour. One also discovers many other things about Newton and his work at Olney. On Thursdays he lectured through Romans 8, at about a verse at a time, or even less. The ‘romance’ of preaching is to be found. On one Thursday meeting – on 15 November – Newton felt stupid (we would say ‘dull’), but then was greatly used as he expounded Romans 8:14.

He introduced possible couples together, so much so that Marylynn Rouse dubs him ‘Mr Matchmaker’. When a neighbouring clergyman publicly insulted him for the Gospel’s sake, Newton characteristically wrote: ‘Lord teach me to deserve it’ and ‘Lord open his eyes, and soften his heart.’ John Wesley – an amateur physician if ever there was one – encouraged the use of an electrical machine for nervous disorders, and Newton found it fairly helpful.

Books abound on preaching, the Christian life, and counselling. Perusing the diaries and letters of John Newton put the vast majority of them in the shade. Accompanying Newton’s diary of this crucial year of his life are Marylynn Rouse’s meticulous and detailed footnotes, and the result is a work for which we should all be grateful.