John Newton’s biography from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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Newton, John (1725–1807), slave trader and Church of England clergyman, was born on 24 July 1725 in Wapping, London, the only child of John Newton (d. 1750), master mariner in the Mediterranean trade, and his first wife, Elizabeth (1705?–1732), whose maiden name was probably Seatliffe. Two days later he was baptized at the Independent chapel in Old Gravel Lane, Wapping, where his mother attended and where David Jennings was the minister. He remembered his mother as ‘a pious and experienced Christian’, and at her knee he learned the hymns and catechisms of Isaac Watts and was nurtured in the piety of old dissent. She died of tuberculosis when John was only six. His father remarried after his mother's death, but John's relationship with both his father and his stepmother was distant, and his religious training ceased. His stepmother, Thomasina, was the daughter of a substantial tenant-grazier in the parish of Aveley in Essex, and he lived with her family while his father was away at sea. Newton eventually had two half-brothers, William and Harry, and a half-sister, Thomasina. For two years (1733–5) he was sent to a boarding-school at Stratford in Essex, where he began to learn Latin. From the age of eleven (1736) he went to sea with his father and made several voyages with him before 1742. The elder Newton was drowned on 29 June 1750, when he was governor of Fort York under the Hudson's Bay Company.


Newton recounts the story of his early life in his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of — (1764), in which he weaves together the themes of religious conversion and romantic love with his seafaring career. Newton's adolescence was a time of fluctuating passions. On a journey to Kent he visited George and Elizabeth Catlett, friends of his late mother, and fell immediately in love with their eldest daughter, Mary Catlett, known as Polly (1729–1790), whom he would later marry. He prolonged his visit and thereby evaded his father's plans to send him to a sugar estate in Jamaica to be set up in business. Returning at the close of 1743 from a voyage to Venice, during which he began his decline into ‘apostasy’, he again evaded his father's plans by a protracted visit to the Catlett family. Before another business opportunity could be found he was press-ganged on board HMS Harwich in the tense days just before France formally declared war on England (during the War of the Austrian Succession, 1739–48). Newton soon attempted to desert but he was caught, put in irons, whipped, and degraded from the office of midshipman to common seaman. As he watched the English coastline recede, at the end of 1744, knowing his ship was bound for a five-year voyage to the East Indies, he claimed it was only his love for Mary that kept him from attempting to murder the captain or commit suicide.

The day before his ship was due to leave Madeira he contrived to be transferred to a merchant vessel in the African slave trade. His behaviour during this whole period involved ribald and blasphemous language; he also alludes vaguely to sexual misconduct. After six months trading he determined to stay on the Guinea coast of Africa to work in the onshore trade, hoping to make his fortune as a slave factor on one of the Plantanes islands off the coast of Sierra Leone. Instead during the next two years he suffered illness, starvation, exposure, and ridicule as his master, a man named Clow, used him brutally. Newton always marked this point as the nadir of his spiritual journey.

Newton's father had arranged for a fellow captain to look for him on his next voyage to the Guinea coast, but meanwhile Newton had found a new master under whom his prospects had so improved that when the captain located him he could barely be persuaded to leave Africa. The ship, the Greyhound, returned to England along the triangular Atlantic trade route, via Brazil and Newfoundland, but encountered a severe north Atlantic storm in the winter of 1748. On 21 March, Newton was awakened in the middle of the night to find that the ship was breaking apart and filling fast with water, and a man was already swept overboard. Newton muttered his first prayer for mercy in many years. When the ordeal was over he and most of the crew had survived the storm but were left with very little food or water and a ship out of repair. Newton began to read the Bible and other religious books. By the time the ship at length reached Ireland he considered himself no longer an ‘infidel’. In his diary he would always thereafter remember 21 March as the anniversary of his conversion. Indeed the very last entry he made in his diary, as an eighty-year-old man, was a commemoration of this event.

In terms of his later evangelical theology, however, this was Newton's awakening of conscience more than his true repentance. He was not yet a ‘true believer’: that came six months later. On his return to England he was helped by Joseph Manestay of Liverpool, a friend of his father's, to obtain a position as first mate on board the Brownlow, a slave-trading ship bound for the Guinea coast and the West Indies (1748–9). He hoped to return to England having proved himself worthy to make a proposal of marriage to Mary Catlett. It was on this voyage, in Africa, that Newton found himself unable to live up to his new spiritual and moral obligations. Only a violent fever returned him to seriousness about his soul. Delirious, he crept to an isolated spot on the island where the ship had stopped and he cast himself before God in an act of surrender, trusting himself wholly to the atonement of Christ. From this moment, he claimed, he experienced a new sort of peace and power over sin. He returned to England and married Mary on 12 February 1750.

After his marriage Newton made three voyages as master of slave-trading ships, the Duke of Argyle (1750–51) and the African (1752–3 and 1753–4). On his last voyage he met a fellow captain, Alexander Clunie, who acquainted him with the progress of evangelical revival in England. Consequently when a convulsive fit caused Newton to leave the maritime trade, later in 1754, he frequented religious meetings in London and was soon drawn into the revival associated with George Whitefield and with John and Charles Wesley. Through his contact with dissenters and Calvinistic Methodism, and through his personal study, he became a convinced Calvinist himself.

Newton has sometimes been accused of hypocrisy for holding strong religious convictions at the same time as being active in the slave trade, praying above deck while his human cargo was in abject misery below deck. He was not, however, within the orbit of evangelicals such as John Wesley, who had advanced views against slavery, until he had already left the sea. He was a typical European of his time. Later in life he had deep regrets and repented of his involvement in the traffic, supported William Wilberforce in his abolition crusade, gave evidence to the privy council, and wrote a tract supporting abolition, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787).

Curate in charge

In August 1755 Newton took up a civil service post as tide surveyor at Liverpool, where his duties included inspecting import cargoes and checking for smuggled goods. The Seven Years' War meant that traffic dropped off at the port so Newton used all his spare time to pursue private studies in divinity. Having become proficient in Latin while at sea he now taught himself Greek, and began to learn Hebrew and Syriac. Soon he was one of the leading evangelical laymen in the region, widely acquainted with ‘awakened clergy’ up and down the country. His acquaintance included Whitefield and Wesley, as well as Yorkshire ministers of all denominations, such as Henry Venn of Huddersfield, William Grimshaw of Haworth, Henry Crooke of Hunslet, and John Edwards of Leeds. He was nicknamed locally Young Whitefield and soon hosted large religious meetings in his own home. It was natural that he began to have thoughts of entering the ministry himself, in 1757. Branded a Methodist he was unsuccessful, during the winter of 1758–9, in several applications for orders in the Church of England. The secretary to the archbishop of York wrote to Newton: ‘His Grace thinks it best for you to continue in that station which Providence has placed you in’ (Dartmouth MSS, 3.173). It was in fact seven frustrating years before he achieved ordination. Newton's churchmanship was far from settled during these years. He contemplated at least three opportunities among the Independents (serving a locum in Warwick for three months in 1760), one among the Methodists, and one among the Presbyterians; he also took his application for orders (in most cases at least twice) to the bishops of Chester and Lincoln, to two archbishops of York, and to the archbishop of Canterbury. When he finished writing his autobiography, in 1764, he was still hoping a bishop would ordain him despite his many disappointments.

In the end that draft of his autobiography acted like a curriculum vitae, which Thomas Haweis used to introduce Newton's case to the young evangelical nobleman Lord Dartmouth. In April 1764 the earl provided a letter of introduction that pacified the bishop of Chester, Edmund Keene, when Newton needed the bishop to authenticate his letters testimonial. Lord Dartmouth also used his influence to overcome the remaining obstacles with the archbishop of York, Hay Drummond, and the bishop of Lincoln, John Green, in whose diocese the living of Olney lay—the living which Lord Dartmouth intended for Newton. At long last Newton received deacon's orders, on 29 April 1764, from the bishop of Lincoln; he was priested several weeks later on 17 June. He could fairly be said to have ended his own seven years' war. A little later that same year Newton's Authentic Narrative appeared in print and it immediately established his place as one of the leading evangelicals in the revival. It went through ten British and eight American editions before the end of the century and was quickly translated into several other languages.

In the event Newton became curate-in-charge rather than vicar of Olney in Buckinghamshire, for Moses Browne (the vicar since 1754) chose not to resign the living when he moved to take up the chaplaincy of Morden College, Blackheath. Olney was a market town located in low, open country on the north-west bank of the River Ouse. The parish included approximately 2000 inhabitants, chiefly artisans and tradesmen. It was well known for its production of bone lace, a cottage industry which had been important locally since religious refugees from France and the Low Countries had brought the trade with them generations earlier. William Cowper described the inhabitants of Olney in Newton's time as ‘the half-starved and ragged of the Earth’ (Letters and Prose, 2.91). Newton's stipend was only £60 a year but the wealthy evangelical merchant John Thornton allowed him an additional £200 a year for hospitality and to help the poor.

Indeed Newton was so successful in helping the poor that he raised the pique of the local nonconformists. The Independent John Drake found his methods ‘Jesuitical’. There was an important puritan–nonconformist history in the region but that constituency had been weakened by the earlier preaching of Whitefield and by the ministry of Moses Browne. Drake claimed that Newton's preaching and pastoral care gave the dissenting interest a ‘mortal wound’. During his sixteen years at Olney, Newton established a variety of services and society meetings, which became very popular; the church became so crowded that a gallery was added. With Olney as his base Newton made forays into adjacent parishes to speak at cottage prayer meetings. He also exchanged pulpits with ministers further away, such as John Berridge of Everton, or went on preaching tours, visiting evangelical clergy in Yorkshire or in London. He maintained warm friendships with dissenters locally, such as the Independent minister William Bull of Newport Pagnell. Though he would not exchange pulpits with dissenters they would frequently visit each other's homes, society meetings, and churches. While known for being tolerant of those with whom he differed he rejected both the Arminianism and the perfectionism of Wesley as well as the high Calvinism prevalent among some Baptists. He liked to call himself ‘a sort of middle-man’.

By the end of Newton's ministry in Olney his encouragement of lay religiosity and his ecumenical spirit caused him problems since several of the laymen in his parish, such as the carpenter Thomas Raban (d. 1784), who had got a taste for public speaking, challenged his authority and eventually seceded from the church. After a serious fire in the town in 1777, Newton tried to restrain the parish from behaving recklessly on the forthcoming Guy Fawkes night. He claimed that the Baptists ‘in a body’ set themselves against him, and his own house was later threatened by mob violence. From that point forward he had thoughts of leaving Olney.

Collaboration with Cowper

In 1767 the poet William Cowper, having recently come to evangelical convictions, settled at Olney to be near Newton. Cowper shared in the religious life of the parish and in 1771 he and Newton began to collaborate formally on a project to publish a volume of their collected hymns. It was to be a sort of mutual Festschrift, celebrating their friendship and spiritual ideals. With the onset of Cowper's third bout of serious depression in 1773, however, the whole project was cast into doubt, for from that point Cowper wrote very few more hymns. In the end Newton decided, nevertheless, to publish what they had. Many of the Olney Hymns (1779) addressed specific situations in the parish but the hymnbook became popular more widely. Newton's most famous contributions are ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’, ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds!’, ‘Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat’, and ‘Amazing grace’. The style and tone of these hymns fit somewhere between the sobriety of old dissent in Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) and the exuberance of Wesleyan Methodism in the standard Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People called Methodists (1780).

Soon after Cowper's death in 1800, a long and often bitter debate commenced over the causes of his dementia and religious melancholy. Some blamed the emotionalism of evangelicalism for aggravating his mental illness while others laid the blame specifically on Calvinism. The belief that Newton's influence had served to undermine Cowper's sanity was long perpetuated by Robert Southey's Life of Cowper (1835). The debate continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with very little fresh work in source criticism and a great deal of parti pris. Newton's life has all too often functioned as merely an episode in the poet's melancholy. Although there were temporary breaches in their friendship Newton continued to treat Cowper with tenderness, acting the part of a spiritual counsellor. He wrote to Cowper in 1780:

I know not that I ever saw you for a single day since your calamity came upon you, in which I could not perceive as clear and satisfactory evidence, that the grace of God was with you, as I could in your brighter and happier times. (Works, 6.162)

Indeed it was at Olney that Newton emerged as a well-known spiritual writer, ‘the St. Francis de Sales of the Evangelical movement, the great spiritual director of souls through the post’ (Balleine, 84). Although Newton published sermons and even a Review of Ecclesiastical History (1770)—which may have suggested to Joseph Milner the idea of his History of the Church of Christ—his favourite medium was the familiar letter; he came virtually to think in quarto sheets folded once. In 1774 he collected and published twenty-six of his letters on religious subjects, which had earlier been published in the Gospel Magazine under the pen name Omicron. His three letters on growth in grace (originally written to John Thornton in 1772) have frequently been printed from the Omicron series as a classical statement of evangelical spirituality. Newton's later collection of more personal letters, Cardiphonia, or, The Utterance of the Heart (1780), established his place as the gentle casuist of the evangelical revival. Included in Cardiphonia is Newton's correspondence with Thomas Scott, the biblical commentator whom Newton helped to convert, after much debate, from Socinianism. Over 500 of Newton's letters of spiritual advice were published during his lifetime or shortly afterwards.

Evangelical in the city

In January 1780 Newton accepted the offer from John Thornton of the benefice of St Mary Woolnoth with St Mary Woolchurch, Lombard Street, London. The living was worth just over £260 a year and the church itself had been built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, in 1727, in a fashionable, baroque style. This was an important city living at a time when William Romaine was the only other evangelical incumbent in London. Newton took up residence at Hoxton Square, near Newington Road, in 1780, and then in 1786 at Coleman Street Buildings, just inside London Wall and close to his church. Unlike his extensive parish ministry at Olney, St Mary Woolnoth was for Newton chiefly a pulpit since the church looked out on a highly mobile, cosmopolitan population with little parochial identity. In 1786, during the Handel commemoration, he preached and published fifty sermons on the libretto of the Messiah. Throughout his ministry in London people came from afar to hear him, and his congregations were large. However when he was awarded the degree of DD by the University of New Jersey in 1792 he chose not to recognize the honour, feeling that his behaviour in Africa as a young man disqualified him from doing so.

Increasingly Newton gained the status of a patriarch within the emerging evangelical party, and his home was regularly crowded with younger ministers eager to glean wisdom from him. Richard Cecil and William Jay were present to record much of Newton's casual table talk. William Wilberforce called on Newton for advice during the crisis of his evangelical conversion in 1785; Claudius Buchanan, who later served as chaplain in India, was converted by a sermon at St Mary Woolnoth and later became Newton's curate; Newton visited Charles Simeon at Cambridge and Hannah More at Cowslip Green. He was also involved in the founding of the Eclectic Society, in 1783, which would become famous as the matrix of the Church Missionary Society and of the Christian Observer magazine. He continued to represent an affable, winsome evangelicalism within the Church of England, and his Calvinism became, if anything, more moderate as he grew older. He told William Jay that he used Calvinism in his ministry like sugar in his tea: ‘I do not give it alone and whole; but mixed and diluted.’ This is also a good example of his epigrammatic wit and homely anecdotal style of communication, in and out of the pulpit. Yet in the troubled 1790s he felt the need to defend his churchmanship in an Apologia (1784), where he made clear his reasons for staying within the Church of England; it satisfied few of his dissenting friends.

Final years

Newton's wife died in 1790 of cancer, and though he was able to preach her funeral sermon his sense of loss was as deep as his love for her had been devoted. He published his Letters to a Wife in 1793, in which he poignantly traced the lines of his grief in meditations recorded in his own interleaved copy. Newton and his wife had no children of their own but they adopted two of their orphan nieces on the Catlett side of the family. Elizabeth (Eliza) Cunningham, daughter of James and Elizabeth Cunningham, came into their home in 1783 but died while still a child, in 1785, and Newton wrote up an account of her childhood faith. Elizabeth (Betsy or Eliza) Catlett was the daughter of George Catlett and had been adopted earlier, in 1774. After his wife's death, Newton depended upon Betsy. In 1801 she experienced a period of derangement and was confined to Bethlem Hospital, much to Newton's distress. After her recovery she married an optician named Smith; both remained at Coleman Street Buildings to take care of Newton as his sight failed and his health deteriorated. He died peacefully on 21 December 1807 and was buried by the side of his wife in St Mary Woolnoth on 31 December; both bodies were re-interred at Olney in 1893.

The most famous image of Newton is an engraving by Joseph Collyer the younger, after a portrait by John Russell. In addition to his published works Newton left behind many manuscripts, comprising largely spiritual journals, sermons, and letters. His archive is now divided among several repositories, the chief of which are the Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney; Lambeth Palace Library, London; and Firestone Library, Princeton University.

Interpretations of Newton's life have varied. Almost every generation since his death has seen sympathetic or inspirational biographies and these have largely affirmed Newton's emblematic sense that his life was a symbol of divine grace to hardened sinners. Richard Cecil's Memoirs of the Rev. John Newton (1808) was squarely in the tradition of Newton's own autobiography; Josiah Bull's more carefully researched John Newton of Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth (1868) was likewise filiopietistic. These volumes are also the chief repositories of information and anecdotes about Newton. In contrast to these interpretations Newton has often appeared as an unsympathetic foil to William Cowper in biographies of the poet. On a broader canvas historians, and particularly ecclesiastical historians, have consistently portrayed Newton as a warm, genial, Christian man and a devoted minister, one of a number of evangelical clergy who helped to raise the spiritual tone of the Church of England in the eighteenth century.

D. Bruce Hindmarsh


D. B. Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English evangelical tradition between the conversions of Wesley and Wilberforce (1996) [incl. bibliography] · J. Bull, John Newton of Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth (1868) · R. Cecil, Memoirs of the Rev. John Newton (1808) · The works of the Rev John Newton, 6 vols. (1808) · B. Martin and M. Spurrell, eds., The journal of a slave trader (John Newton), 1750–1754 (1962) · D. B. Hindmarsh, ‘The Olney autobiographers: English conversion narrative in the mid-eighteenth century’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 49 (1998), 61–84 · B. Martin, John Newton: a biography (1950) · J. Pollock, Amazing grace: John Newton's story (1981) · Autobiography of William Jay, ed. G. Redford and J. A. James (1854) · The manuscripts of the earl of Dartmouth, 3 vols., HMC, 20 (1887–96), vol. 3 · The letters and prose writings of William Cowper, ed. J. King and C. Ryskamp, 5 vols. (1979–86) · G. R. Balleine, A history of the evangelical party in the Church of England, new edn (1951) · R. Cecil, The life of John Newton, ed. M. Rouse (2000)


Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire, corresp., MSS, and notebooks · GL, corresp. and sermon notes · LPL, corresp. and papers · NMM, log as master of a slaver · Princeton University Library, Firestone Library, collection and other MSS · Princeton University Library, corresp. relating to history of Church of England, MSS of hymns, and notebook · U. Birm. L., letters from wife and sermon notes |  BL, letters to W. Cowper, Egerton MS 3662 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with William Wilberforce · Bristol Baptist College, letters to John Ryland jun. · CUL, corresp. with John Thornton · DWL, letters to David Jennings · Hist. Soc. Penn., letters of Newton · LPL, corresp. with William Bull · Lpool RO, letters to David Jennings · McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, MS memoir of William Cowper · Ridley Hall, Cambridge, letters to John Thornton · U. Birm. L., Church Missionary Society archive



engravings, 1781–8, NPG · J. Collyer the younger, line engraving, 1807 (after J. Russell, 1788), BM, NPG [see illus.] · two engravings, in or before 1809, NPG · oils, Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire

Wealth at death  

see will, 4 Feb 1808, PRO, PROB 11/1474

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D. Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘Newton, John (1725–1807)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 19 Nov 2005]

John Newton (1725–1807): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20062


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