John Newton as Father – Through Joys and Pains

The first part of John Newton’s life is well known. Born in 1725 in Wapping, London, he lived a turbulent youth, dominated, from age 17, by compelling feelings of love for Mary Catlett, known as Polly. The impulsiveness of these feelings conflicted with his father’s plans to set him up for a profitable career.

            Press-ganged by the Royal Navy into military service in the eve of France’s declaration of war against England, Newton embarked in a series of misadventures (mostly caused by his misbehavior), which brought him floggings, starvation, exposure to the elements, and ridicule. At one point, he felt like jumping into the ocean. “The secret hand of God restrained me,”[1] he wrote.

            Some respite came when a slave trader employed him first as assistant and then business partner. John loved this new, comfortable life, and had no qualms about the nature of his work. The only way a friend of his father, who had come to rescue him, could persuade him to leave was by lying about a huge inheritance waiting for him at home – the equivalent of two million dollars.

            Newton’s carefree and disrespectful attitude continued on the way home, until the ship, the Greyhound, was caught in a terrible storm. For the first time in many years, he instinctively prayed for God’s mercy. Eventually, after almost a month of battling the waters and fighting for survival, the crew sighted land. On April 8, 1748, Newton stepped on firm land a changed man.


Slow Progress

            Some accounts of Newton’s life stop at this point, or when he married the girl of his dreams. After this, these reports say, he became a pastor, understood the evils of slavery, and wrote many hymns – a short appendix, focused on his transformation. In reality, this second and longest part of his life is somewhat more exciting and relatable than the first. The truth is, while we love hearing of dramatic conversions, we usually progress at an annoyingly sluggish pace.

            Newton spoke often about this frustratingly slow progress in his Christian life. Even after his awakening on the Greyhound, it took him years of study and many conversations with other Christians to come to a clear understanding of God’s grace.

            As 21st-century readers, we find his seemingly unperturbed continuation in the slave trade particularly puzzling. And yet, this trade was so widely accepted in his day that Wilberforce’s first motion to end it was crushed in Parliament by 163 votes to 88.

            At the same time, it was partially this slow and gradual progress that taught Newton how to act with patience in the toughest circumstances and the most discouraging cases. He showed, for example, enduring patience to his friend William Cowper, even when the poet’s state of mind gave no indication to improve, and patiently encouraged the recipients of his many letters. He also expressed great patience in his care for his adopted daughters.


Papa Newton

            Newton’s experience as a father is one of the lesser-known aspects of his life. It all began in 1774, when he and Polly took in a daughter of Polly’s brother, five-year old Elizabeth Catlett, known as Betsy, who had lost both of her parents. The Newtons loved her as their own. John measured her growth by marks on the wall, by the fireplace, and Polly baked her favorite cakes. Betsy called Newton Papa and Polly Mamma.        

            As Betsy grew, Newton sent her to a boarding school, where girls her age could receive the best education, but kept in close contact with frequent visits and letters.

            These letters express typical parental apprehensions, especially when she didn’t reply, didn’t return home for a scheduled visit, or didn’t seem to speak freely from her heart. He was troubled by this lack of communication, which deprived him of the opportunity “of attempting to relieve, encourage, or direct”[2] the young girl. To facilitate free expression, he asked Betsy’s governess to bend the school’s rules and refrain from reading her letters before she mailed them.

            He tried not to sound overbearing in his concern for her soul. “I would not overdo you upon this subject,” he once wrote, “though the truth is, this is my chief desire for you, that you may know the Lord and love him. … I know that I cannot make you truly pious, nor can you make yourself so. It is the Lord's work, and I am daily praying him to bless you indeed.”[3]


Stormy Seas

            As every parent, he feared Betsy’s unknown future. Given his sailing background, he compared it to a stormy sea. “You are now, as it were, in a safe harbor; but by and by you must launch out into the world, which may well be compared to a tempestuous sea. I could even now almost weep at the resemblance. But I take courage, as my hopes are greater than my fears. I know there is an infallible Pilot, who has the winds and the waves at his command. There is hardly a day passes, in which I do not entreat him to take charge of you. Under his care I know you will be safe.”[4]

            In 1783, the Newtons took in another orphaned niece, 12-year old Elizabeth Cunningham, known as Eliza, daughter of Polly’s sister. Eliza’s father, brother, and sister had all died of tuberculosis, and both Eliza and her mother had contracted the disease. The Newtons invited both to their house, but only Eliza survived long enough to move in.

            In spite of Newton’s diligent care, which included frequent trips to the coast, Eliza’s condition worsened until she died at age 14. Newton, who had spent much time preparing her for this moment through prayer and Bible reading, was greatly comforted by her eagerness to meet her Savior. The text she chose for her funeral was Revelation 14:13, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

            Eventually, Betsy finished school and became a great source of support for Newton, especially after Polly died of cancer in 1790. Ten years later, however, the stormy waters he had dreaded became a reality. A long illness affected her mind so much that she began to have uncontrollable fears. “She is always under the immediate apprehension of death,” Newton wrote, “which is very terrible in her state of despondency. I seldom leave her but she says I shall find her a corpse on my return.”[5]

            Betsy’s thoughts were so irrational and uncontainable that Newton took her to a doctor who was also his friend. “I am willing to use the means,”[6] he said. Eventually, she was admitted to Bethlehem Hospital, where she was not allowed visitors, but Newton walked to the building at a certain time every morning and waved in the direction of her window. Since by that time his eyesight was very poor, he would ask a friend or servant to tell him if Betsy waved back. “Do you see a white handkerchief being waved to and fro?” he would say. If his friend said yes, he would go home happy.

            Betsy’s illness caused Newton so much pain that his friend William Bull wrote, “He is almost overwhelmed with this most awful affliction. I never saw a man so cut up. He is almost broken-hearted.”[7] After all, he had just walked through the dark valley of mental illness with his friend Cowper and couldn’t imagine a similar path for Betsy.

            He was honest about his contrasting feelings. “I feel too often the workings of unbelief and self-will,” he said. What gave him strength was the memory of who God was and what he had done both in history and in his own life. “I believe only the help of him who made heaven and earth, and who raises the dead, can effectually relieve us,” he said. “I aim to commit her into his faithful hands, and I trust he will help me to abide by the surrender I have made, of myself and my all, to him.”[8]


A Peaceful End

            Thankfully, Betsy recovered. In 1805, she married an optician named Joseph Smith, and the couple remained with Newton, who by that time needed much assistance.

            Newton died peacefully on 21 December 1807. He lived long enough to hear that Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade had finally passed, with the overwhelming majority of 283 votes to 16, an amazing turn of events in a short period of time. It might not have surprised Newton, however, who knew fully well how quickly and forcibly God can turn hearts with the same grace he liked to call “invincible.”[9]


[1] The Works of Rev. John Newton, Vol. 1, p. 12

[2] John Newton, Works, Vol. 4, Nathan Whiting, New Haven, 1824, p. 397.

[3] Ibid, p. 390.

[4] Ibid, p. 397.

[5] John Newton, Letters, ed. Josiah Bull, Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Coffin, The Religious Tract Society, London, p. 396

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p. 398

[8] Ibid, p. 396

[9] Ibid, p. 264


Simonetta Carr