Extract from a paper delivered at the Wilberforce Symposium, Gordon College, November 2002


A Double Portion of my Thoughts and Prayers


John Newton’s Letters to William Wilberforce
Both the importance and the difficulties of your situation, superadded to my regard,
entitle you to a double portion of my thoughts and prayers. [1]
“Sir,” wrote William Wilberforce in great distress to John Newton on Saturday 2 December 1785, “I wish to have some serious conversation with you.” Though he possibly had not seen him for fourteen years, Newton was the one person whom Wilberforce felt he could trust for spiritual advice in his conversion crisis, knowing that anything he said would be held in complete confidence.
Almost two years later, on Sunday 28 October 1787, with an even deeper, proven friendship and mutual regard between them, it was Newton whom Wilberforce had at his side for further serious conversation on the day that he was to enter in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” [2]
John Newton, the ex-slave trader, had not long been curate-in-charge at Olney when all his savings, which he had entrusted for safekeeping to his former employer Joseph Manesty, disappeared through the bankruptcy of Manesty’s shipping company in 1766. John Thornton of Clapham [3] providentially stepped in to provide Newton with a regular annuity of £200, enabling him to offer hospitality and to contribute to some of the needs of the poor around him.
Through this new friendship, Newton met Thornton’s half-sister, Hannah and her husband William Wilberforce [4] and invited them to spend some time with him at Olney. When they next stayed at Newton’s vicarage, in June 1771, “Master Wilberforce”,  [5] aged 11, accompanied them. [6]
All too mindful of the wasted years of his own youth, Newton had a strong concern for young people. It was not surprising that this meeting and possibly others endeared him as a father-figure to the young William, so recently deprived of his own father. [7]
However, Wilberforce was soon removed by his mother from the evangelical circles of London and placed at the Grammar School in Pocklington, North Yorkshire, in the hope that he would lose all sense of those Methodistical influences. But Newton retained his prayerful interest. Hannah’s husband was on the point of leaving for Yorkshire, when he received a letter from Newton saying, “I beg to be remembered likewise to Master Wilberforce when you see him." [8]
To Hannah, Newton wrote, "I hope your nephew engages good bodily health, and his soul nourished and refreshed; and though he lives in a barren land, I trust he finds that the Lord can open springs and fountains in the wilderness. The word of grace and the throne of grace afford wells of salvation, from which he cannot be debarred; from thence, I hope, he will daily draw with joy the water of life, and, like a tree of the Lord's planting, strike root downwards, and bear fruit upwards, and experience that the Lord is able to keep, establish, and comfort him, though for a season he is deprived of the public ordinances of the Gospel." [9]
Their pathways diverged for a while. Newton’s ministry at Olney lasted 16 years, during which time he enjoyed the close friendship of William Cowper (remembered forever in their joint production of the Olney Hymns [10], and of William Bull (the like-minded Independent minister of Newport-Pagnell), saw the conversion of the provocative Reverend Thomas Scott (his near neighbour, embarrassed to the point of shame at Newton’s visiting his dying, and neglected, parishioners), strengthened the faith of many young and not-so-young clergy, students, lace makers and children, laid the foundations amongst the Northamptonshire Baptist ministers for a missionary-minded Baptist Association to develop out of their high Calvinism and wrote prolifically letters which, when published, would lead to the strengthening the faith of many believers and the conversion of society swingers such as the dramatist Hannah More. He welcomed preachers from far and wide, including Henry Venn of Huddersfield and Henry Foster of London. Newton’s Olney days were also to provide him with hours upon hours of painful experiences of hardships, trials, spiritual battles, human weaknesses and failings, from which he gradually developed and refined a depth of pastoral wisdom and insight which was put to such valuable effect during his subsequent city ministry of 28 years in the heart of London. John Thornton procured him the living of St Mary Woolnoth and he moved to Charles Square, Hoxton, in 1780.
In September that year Newton dined with John Thornton and Hannah Wilberforce at Clapham. [11] The following month William Bull, by now also a close friend of John and Hannah, came to stay with the Newtons at No. 13 Charles Square, Hoxton. [12] A few days after Bull’s arrival, William Wilberforce, the newly elected MP for Hull, took his seat in Parliament for the first time, on 31 October 1780.
The clamour of the election had not escaped Newton’s notice, nor his wit.
 “We have almost finished Election business,” he wrote to Cowper in November 1780. [13] “Being called to preach a Charity Sermon on Sunday afternoon at St George’s in the Borough, I canvassed in my way, by asking, Who is on the Lord’s side? Possibly I did not gain many votes, but if one, it will be found of more worth hereafter, than all that the great ones of the earth are busying themselves about.”
On Christmas Eve he confided in Bull, [14] as was their custom, what “the two candidates” for his Christmas Day sermons might be: Genesis 49:10-12 for the morning and John 9:39 for the evening. “If they shall resolve to stand, and no powerful competitor interpose, it is probable they may both carry the election, especially the latter.” He had previously preached on the former in Olney on Christmas Day morning, 1769, when he had affirmed that “Some of all people and languages, when they hear of Him and feel their need of a Saviour shall be enabled to look to Him and put their trust in His name, renouncing every other". [15]
“Nothing convinces me of the dreadful state of my own mind, as the possibility… of my being ashamed of Christ,” wrote Wilberforce in his Journal on 30 November 1785. [16]
Just as Newton had discovered on the Greyhound that fateful day of 21 March 1748, when a sudden and violent storm in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean had flung one of his shipmates overboard and threatened instant death to the rest of them every moment as the ship broke up around them, for Wilberforce too, “now the Lord’s time was come.” [17]
The age gap between John Newton and William Wilberforce was 34 years and 20 days.
Having abandoned his childhood spirituality, but with a conscience suddenly deeply stirred by recent readings of the Scriptures and Doddridge’s Rise and Progress [18] with Isaac Milner, [19] Wilberforce was in turmoil. His Journal reveals his anguish as he longed to consult with someone spiritually wise and trustworthy: [20]

30 November               
                I thought seriously this evening of going to converse with Mr Newton.
2 December
  Resolved again about Mr Newton. It may do good; he will pray for me. Kept    debating in that unsettled way… whether to go to London or not… went at last in the stage to town – inquired for old Newton; but found he lived too far off for me to see him.


3 December

  had a good deal of debate with myself about seeing Newton.


As if the clinch the matter, Wilberforce sat down and penned a note:


To the Rev John Newton
Dec 2 1785


I wish to have some serious conversation with you…




PS Remember that I must be secret, and that the gallery of the House [of Commons] is now so universally attended, that the face of a member of parliament is pretty well known.
Despite “ten thousand doubts”, he made his way to St Mary Woolnoth for the evening service, and delivered his note to old Newton afterwards in his vestry.
A date was arranged for their secret meeting. It was to be on Wednesday, at the Newtons’ home in Charles Square. In the 18th century, the central area was grass bordered with trees. But for Wilberforce it might as well have been lined with all the inquisitive spectators of the House of Commons gallery, for all the confidence he could summon up to brace himself for a conversation that might end his promising political career. It was a point of no return.
6 December


After walking about the Square once or twice before I could persuade myself, I called upon old Newton – was much affected in conversing with him – something very pleasing and unaffected in him. [21]

He discovered that his confidant “had always hopes and confidence that God would sometime bring me to Him.”
Newton knew all too well the ragings of an awakened conscience and could counsel him from the heart. He encouraged him to remain in politics, not to forsake his present friends, and not to rush into new acquaintances. He spoke gently of the workings of the Spirit of God in the heart of man and gave him a copy of his own “great turning day” experience to read. [22]
“When I came away”, Wilberforce wrote, “I found my mind in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, and looking more devoutly up to God.”
The following Sunday he headed down for St Mary Woolnoth with a lighter heart. He heard Newton preaching “on the addiction of the soul to God. They that observe lying vanities shall forsake their own mercy. Excellent. He shows his whole heart is engaged.”
Wilberforce attended Newton’s church every Sunday in December and was sometimes at his midweek lectures on Wednesdays. By Tuesday 20th December he felt able to say, “he has my leave to mention my case to my aunt and Mr Thornton.” Newton wrote to him a few days later, “I saw Mrs Wilberforce today, and left her in tears of joy. She says you may depend on her strictly observing your requisitions.” [23]
Wilberforce’s doubts did not disappear instantly. His diary shows he was worried, feeling “very wretched– all sense gone. Colder than ever – very unhappy.” [24] And eventually on Monday 2 January 1786 “called at Newton’s, and bitterly moved: he comforted me.”
Newton recommended that he regularly attend the lectures of Thomas Scott, who had recently become chaplain of the Lock Chapel in London. [25] When Henry Venn came to hear of it, he wrote excitedly to a friend, “Mr Wilberforce has been at the chapel, and attends the preaching constantly. Much he has to give up! And what will be the issue, who can say?” [26]
In January, Wilberforce brought Newton back to Wimbledon after church. He dined and slept there - “composure and happiness of a true Christian: he read the account of his poor niece’s death, and shed tears of joy, [27] Wilberforce wrote in his diary. The following day he and Newton were seen walking together on the common in the evening. “Expect to hear myself now universally given out to be a Methodist: may God grant it may be said with truth,” [28] he noted.
Some years later, Newton responded quickly to one such allegation, writing to Wilberforce,
I congratulate you my dear Sir on the undesigned honour Mr Macnamara has done you, in the House of Commons (if the newspaper accounts of the debates may be depended on) … Indeed the only reason given for your being charged with Methodism - appears to me the greatest and most public complement that ever was paid to Methodism - Nothing more than attention to the cause of justice, truth and humanity, seems necessary at present to fix the imputation of Methodism upon the most unexceptionable characters. [29]
A circle was gradually forming of Christian friends who were to have a profound impact on the whole country and improve the lives of many in other nations: John Thornton’s son Henry, Henry Venn’s son John, Hannah More, William Wilberforce and Henry Foster, [30] supported in teaching and pastoral advice by their elders, John Newton and Thomas Scott.
There was much that the younger man wanted to learn, and much that the older longed to impart. Wilberforce was keen to meet and talk. Although Newton often had a succession of visitors on Saturdays, the day that best suited Wilberforce, he gladly offered to free up time, inviting him to dine with them at 2pm. “From that time till five or half past five, I could have you to myself in my study, let who would come.” [31]
Several times over these months, Wilberforce entered in his diary, “Newton dined with me”. [32]
Newton wished that Wilberforce could visit him often but conceded this was not practicable in his political duties. “But whenever you can call, you will be a welcome guest,” he assured him, “Great subjects to discuss, great plans to promote, great prospects to contemplate, will always be at hand. Thus employed, our hours, when we meet, will pass away like minutes.” [33]
As much as he would have loved to have spent an hour with Wilberforce every week, “or every day,” – “from morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve, a summer’s day[34] he elaborated in old age - their different situations did not allow it. “Yet I trust we are both in our assigned posts, and the servants of the same Lord; I look forward to an approaching period, when our communication with Him, and in Him with each other, will be perfect, perpetual, and without interruption.” [35]

A valuable correspondence developed between them, which is now being put online by The John Newton Project at
©   Marylynn Rouse   The John Newton Project   2002


[1] MS Wilberforce c49 f34, 10 June 1791, Bodleian Library [return]
[2] The Life of William Wilberforce, Robert Isaac Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, 1838, vol 1, page 149 [return]
[3] John Thornton, 1720-1790, whose son Henry became a close friend of William Wilberforce [return]
[4] William Wilberforce, [1721 – 1777] son of William Wilberforce [1690-1774] of Hull [return]
[5] William Wilberforce, MP [1759-1833] [return]
[6] MS Wilberforce c49 ff 120-121, 4 July 1771. Wilberforce’s portrait by John Russell, 1770, shows him at this same age (11), while he was under the care of his aunt and uncle. [return]
[7] William Wilberforce, John Pollock, Lion 1986 edition, page 5. Pollock quotes Wilberforce’s reminisces of Newton, “even reverencing him as a parent when I was a child.” [return]
[8] MS Wilberforce c49 ff 122-123, 25 November 1774 [return]
[9] Gleanings, ed E Powell, 1824, undated letter, page 391 [return]
[10] Olney Hymns, John Newton, 1779. In his preface to this publication, Newton explained that one of his designs in embarking on writing the hymns together, was that it should be “as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.” [return]
[11] 129 Letters from the Rev John Newton, Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, to the Rev William Bull of Newport Pagnell, 1847, page 100, 25 September 1780 [return]
[12] 129 Letters,1847, page 101, No.13 Charles Square, Hoxton, 14 October, 1780. The numbering changed over the years and the Newtons’ house has been replaced by a block of flats. However, the original 18th century house next door, now No. 16, remains. It is the Headquarters of the London Labour Party. [return]
[13] Cowper & Newton Museum, ALS John Newton to William Cowper [November 1780] [return]
[14] 129 Letters, 1847, page 103, 24 Dec 1780 [return]
[15] Cowper & Newton Museum, Newton’s pocket sermon notebook No. 41, page 4. [return]
[16] Life, vol 1, page 92 [return]
[17] An Authentic Narrative, John Newton, 1764 [return]
[18] The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Philip Doddridge, 1745 [return]
[19] Isaac Milner [1750-1820], formerly assistant teacher to Wilberforce, later Dean of Carlisle [return]
[20] Life, vol 1, pages 92-97 [return]
[21] Life, vol 1, page 97 (refers to Journal, 6 December 1785) [return]
[22] An Authentic Narrative, John Newton, 1764 [return]
[23] MS Wilberforce c49 f1, 22 December 1785 [return]
[24] MS Don e f50 [Wilberforce’s Diary], Bodleian Library [return]
[25] Thomas Scott [1717-1821], Bible commentator, who also held the lectureship of Bread Street Church on Sunday afternoons [return]
[26] The Life and a Selection from the Letters of the late Rev Henry Venn, ed. H Venn, with a Memoir of his Life by J Venn, 1835, reprinted 1993, page 435 of reprint [return]
[27] Newton’s Works, vol 5, A Monument to the Praise of the Lord’s Goodness, and to the Memory of Dear Eliza Cunningham, first published as a Tract for private distribution in November 1785. Eliza was buried by Newton on 12 October 1785 at St Mary Woolnoth. [return]
[28] MS Don e f51, Wilberforce’s Diary, January 11th, 12th 1786 [return]
[29] MS Wilberforce c49 ff 28, 29 May 1789 [return]
[30] Henry Foster [1745-1844], rector of St James Clerkenwell. When in Olney, Newton sometimes exchanged pupits with Foster. [return]
[31] MS Wilberforce c49, f1, 22 December 1785 [return]
[32] e.g. MS Don e f51 Wilberforce’s Diary, Sun 26 Feb 85: Lock, Newton. Newton dined with me, Sun 19 Mar: Mr Newton dined with me [return]
[33] MS Wilberforce c49 f4, 21 March 1786 [return]
[34] MS Wilberforce c49 f 116, 4 May 1803 [return]
[35] MS Wilberforce c49 ff 52-53, 2 October 1794 [return]