Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review: John Newton (Bitesize Biographies)

Before reading this concise biography, I knew almost nothing about John Newton's life. I was aware, of course, that he wrote "Amazing Grace" and had a sordid past as a slave trader. The story of how God redeemed him from miscreant to minister is fascinating, and I am thankful for this brief book because it has instilled in me a desire to read about Newton in his own words. I did not realize so many of his works and letters were published during his lifetime, and I look forward to reading his Narrative and Cardiphonia,  as well as some other modern biographies recommended by the author.

What I gained from this book is the utter joy and benevolence that Newton received from his relationship with Christ. Though he barely recognized God's Providences at the time, once united with his Savior he was able to look back on his wayward young life with thanksgiving. The author does an excellent job of celebrating the graces repeatedly bestowed upon Newton, and he shares numerous examples of God orchestrating events and people to spare Newton's life and bring him into a relationship with Christ.

From the very first pages I was struck by the remarkable impact of Newton's mother on his life. Though she died when he was only seven, in her brief time with Newton she taught him to read, introduced him to Latin, and instructed him in Scripture and catechism memorization. She exposed her son to the great hymns of the day, including those by the notable Isaac Watts, which must have influenced his love of music. Though the author downplays her influence and describes it as "fading from Newton's heart" once he turns to more wicked ways, I believe her instruction was sustained through his love of books and learning and manifested later, upon his renewal, in his diligence to teach himself the original languages of Scripture.

Of particular delight to me were the snippets about Newton's home life with his wife Polly -- how they excelled in hospitality and opened their home multiple times during the week to parishioners, visiting pastors, and guests in order to share fellowship and prayer and theological discussion.

The section concerning Newton's friendship with the poet and hymn-writer William Cowper remains particularly touching. Newton displayed a true and genuine affection for this oft-troubled companion, and their devotion and partnership in the Lord are inspiring. I would hope that I could love a friend as well as Newton loved Cowper during his long bouts of depression. Their collaboration -- The Olney Hymns -- displays their immense talent and shared creative effort to convey Spiritual truths through song.

Indeed, my favorite chapter of the entire book is titled "The Songs of the Soul," which offers fresh insights into the complete original text of "Amazing Grace," as well as other famous hymns such as "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" and "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds."   I was introduced to the latter two hymns through the popular modern movement Indelible Grace and was delighted to discover more about their origins and explanations.

The final chapter summarized the main themes of Newton's prolific correspondence and was of particular interest to me as one who struggles against fast and easy electronic communication. One of the archaic definitions of the word "prolific" means to cause abundant growth, generation, or reproduction, and this would certainly be true of Newton's letter-writing ministry. Through his communication with noblemen, other clergymen and laypeople, Newton often shared glorious truths of the gospel and built lasting relationships.

Overall, it was a quick introduction to the compelling life story of John Newton, but was sometimes difficult to read because of the writer's distracting style. The short bursts of information might be better served as teachable sections instead of one continuous, flowing narrative. Although I gained many great insights through reading this short work, I must admit I found the author's excessive use of exclamation points and abrupt or unclear transitions irksome. At times the author's enthusiasm and extraneous commentary only served to divert the reader from the actual story. The plot itself, though, was riveting enough to hold my attention.

Despite these minor quibbles, I found the passion and purpose of this short biography to be enthralling. I would recommend this book as a brief introduction to John Newton's life and works, with the caveat that it may entice you to further study! The discussion of his hymns and letters at the end is worth the asking price.

(Disclaimer: I received this book free from CrossFocused Reviews. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.)

1 comment:

  1. Allison,

    Thanks for contributing to the blog tour.

    Shaun Tabatt
    Cross Focused Reviews