Marylynn Rouse has put together a most valuable document in the diary of John Newton for 1765, which was his first full year in the parish of Olney. The year began with news of the death of Newton’s brother-in-law, John Catlett the week before. He was the brother of Mary (whom he always called Polly), and Newton was not sure of his salvation, so contented himself with saying: ‘I desire to leave it in his hands whose mercies are infinite.’ For that matter, at this stage he was still not wholly certain of Mary’s own standing in the gospel.
Overall, the first year of parish ministry was encouraging, and on 21 July it was reported that there were people from 13 different parishes at public worship. Newton is known for his searching application of Scripture to his own soul. There are many prayers of self-examination in his diary, such as ‘Lord pardon the iniquity of my holy things’ (1 Sept.). ‘Deliver me from myself’ (26 Sept). He lamented that he was ‘so faint, barren and stupid in my views of divine things, as though I did not believe them’ (5 Nov.). On Sunday 29 December he recorded what is not totally unusual for a preacher: ‘I was very dull and heavy this morning in the reading service yet seldom have been favoured with more liberty in the pulpit, preached from Revelation 5:12 and a second from John 3:11.’
Other things emerge. Lord Dartmouth and John Thornton (whom he usually called Mr Freeman to protect his identity as an evangelical) offered Newton the Presidentship of a seminary to be built in in Georgia in America, but Newton declined to leave ‘poor Olney’ (12 Nov.). This came about through the influence of George Whitefield whom Newton greatly appreciated but who was unable to change Newton’s mind.
Diaries enable a reader to see more into a person than do letters. We learn that Newton was not a morning person; almost invariably he preached on one verse at a time; usually he preached at least three times a week; on moonless nights or when smallpox threatened, the congregation would be fewer in number; he opposed any party spirit against Dissenters; he often spoke on his Tuesday night prayer meeting on subjects requested by his congregation; and he took the opportunity to preach against a horse race which was planned for the parish. On 12 February there is a somewhat cryptic record: ‘My Wedding day. Not wholly forgot.’
The more we know about Newton the better, because it will inspire us to know more about being sanctified.
– Peter Barnes
Peter Barnes is the editor of AP and pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church NSW.