John Newton to Thomas Robinson

1. 2 October 1775*
Dear Sir
When your letter came to Olney I was at London,[1] nor did I re­ceive it till a little before my return, and since I came home I have been quite taken up with things which could not be deferred: otherwise you would have heard from me much sooner. I should have made a point (though in general I cannot be a very punctual correspondent) of answering your first letter speedily, as a proof of the value I set upon it; and especially when it brought me the in­teresting news of the great danger Mrs Robinson[2] had been in, and the Lord's goodness in bringing her through it, and making her the mother of a living child.[3] I know how to feel for you, both in the sorrow and the joy. Mr and Mrs Rennard[4] (who left us this morning) informed us that Mrs Robinson is still but poorly. We congratulate you both on the begun mercy, which I hope and pray will be perfected by her complete recovery. May you long be happy together, mutual helpmeets and comforts in the way, as fellow-heirs of the hope of eternal life; and may the child the Lord has given you live to know and serve the God of her parents.

Tomorrow I take wing again. We propose spending the remainder of the week at Bedford.[5] Shall return on Saturday to dinner; so that any time after Friday we shall be ready to receive Miss Boys,[6] and heartily glad to see her, if it suits her to take Olney in her way to Cambridgeshire, which I hope it will.

Your situation is indeed important, and the Lord has greatly honoured and favoured you. It is one of your greatest mercies that He preserves in you a sense of your own weakness, and of the snares attending popularity. I am far from joining with those friends, who have suspected you of unfaithfulness or cowardice. On the contrary, I am thankful that the Lord has tempered your zeal with gentle­ness and prudence; without which I am persuaded your usefulness would have been greatly precluded, and, perhaps, your post hardly tenable. I hope the hasty censures of those, who cannot (at a distance) be proper judges either of your con­duct or circumstances, will not make you uneasy. Wait a while, and they will readily retract them, if they know and love the truth. May God preserve us from a prudence founded upon the maxims of the world, and influenced by the fear or favour of man. But Christian prudence is a grace of the Spirit, very useful and ornamental; and many well-meant designs have sadly miscarried for want of it.

The providential turns in my life have indeed been very remarkable; yet I can readily allow you to think your own case no less extraordinary, because you are acquainted with your own heart, and are a stranger to mine. Non omnia nec omnibus[7] might have been no improper motto to my narrative. Alas! the most marvellous proofs of the Lord's patience and goodness to me are utterly unfit for publication; nay, I could not whisper some things into the ear of a friend. It has been since my conversion, and not by what happened before it, that I have known the most striking instances of the vileness and depravity of my nature. My heart, as the ancients fabled of Africa, has been continually producing new monsters. Et adhuc deteriora latent.[8] I have good reason to believe, that it is still comparatively a terra incognita[9] to me; and that it contains treasures, mines, depths, and sources of iniquity in it, of which I have hardly a more adequate con­ception, than I could form of the fishes that are hidden in the sea, by taking a survey of the fish-market at Billingsgate.[10] But oh! wonderful, transporting thought! He, before whom its most retired recesses lie naked and open, can and does bear with me. How wonderful is it, likewise, that notwithstanding all these floods of abomination, He has been pleased to keep me outwardly, so that I have not been suffered to make any considerable blot in my profession before men, since He was pleased first to number me amongst His children. But verily I have nothing to boast of. I may well say, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is exceedingly abundant."[11] I believe most who are called by grace can recollect former periods of life, when they felt something of the workings of God's Spirit within them, and they derive instruction from them afterwards; yet I conceive these impressions are for the most part different, toto genere,[12] from that great radical and instantaneous change which takes place in the moment of regeneration—when a new and truly spiritual light is darted into the soul, and gives such perceptions as we were before unacquainted with. All that is known, or can be done before, seems preparatory only, like the taking away the stone from the grave of Lazarus; the sinner remains dead in trespasses and sins, till the voice of the Son of God is heard; then the dead hear, obey, and live.[13]

Please to give my respects to Mr Ludlam.[14] I trust and pray, that the Lord will reveal to him, and bestow upon him, the pearl of great price; and then I am sure he will account all other acquisitions but dross, in comparison of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord. What you say of his brother[15] rejoices my heart. May the Lord confirm your hopes, and make him a happy and successful labourer with you in the Gospel.

We retain a grateful sense of the kindness we received at Leicester. Please to give our affectionate respects to all who received us for the Lord's sake. May grace be with you, and with all who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity around you; and may you see their numbers increase daily. We join in love to Mrs Robinson and Miss Boys, and shall rejoice to see any of our Leicester friends, or any of yours. Cease not to pray for us, and believe me to be.
Your affectionate and obliged servant and brother,
Olney, Oct. 2, 1775        John Newton
*    The Evangelical Register, 1838; page 481, No. 17  


[1] The Newtons were away from 16 August – 23 September 1775. Newton preached in several London churches (see his diary for 23 September 1775). While Polly visited family in Chatham he travelled to Reading to see his old friend Sarah Talbot, recently widowed.
[2] Thomas Robinson married Mary Boys in Mepal, Cambridgeshire, on 20 October 1774. Robinson had been curate of neighbouring Witcham and Wickford in the Isle of Ely before moving to Leicester in September 1774 as curate of All Saints and St Martin’s.
[3] Mary Robinson, born 7 August 1775, to Thomas and Mary Robinson, was christened at St Martin’s Leicester on 12 September 1775.
[4] Joseph & Mary Rennard of Hull. Joseph, partner in the firm Thornton, Watson and Co, sugar refiners, died May 1816 aged 84.
[5] The Newtons stayed from Tuesday to Saturday that week with the Moravian family the Foster-Barhams in Bedford, “expounding in the family” every morning and attending their chapel most evenings. On his return to Olney on Saturday night, Newton hastily wrote a hymn for the following evening: “True Happiness” – seemingly drawing on the Christian fellowship he had just witnessed in the Foster-Barhams’ home: Hymn No. 218, Fix my heart and eyes on thine!, Olney Hymns, Book 3, Hymn 66, 8 October 1775
[6] Mary Robinson’s sister
[7]  Non omnia nec omnibus: not everything nor for everyone
[8] Et adhuc deteriora latent: moreover, worse things lurk
[9] terra incognita: uncharted territory
[10] Billingsgate: the UK’s largest inland fish market, located in London
[11] 1 Timothy 1:14 And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is one of Newton’s favourite passages, preceded by verse 13: Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And followed by verse 15: This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
[12] toto genere: in every respect
[13] See John 11:1-46
[14] The Rev William Ludlam (1717-1788), eldest son of Leicester physician Richard, rector of Cockfield in Suffolk but living in Leicester, was an accomplished mathematician and astronomist, and a theologian whom Newton described in his diary as “a clergyman of candour… very learned, and very friendly”. Ludlam had been impressed with Newton’s Ecclesiastical Review, and invited Newton to his home. Newton later described Ludlam to John Thornton: “He is vastly sensible and ingenious, but I could observe no tokens of spiritual light” (ALS, 5 April 1775). Under Robinson’s ministry however, he gradually gained that light. William’s son Thomas (1775-1810) was Governor of the Sierra Leone Company. Here and elsewhere, incorrect spellings such as ‘Ludlem’ have been corrected to Ludlam.
[15] William lived with his younger brother the Rev Thomas Ludlam (1727–1811), who was Confrater of the Leicester Infirmary from 1755 until his death. Thomas began enthusiastically for Robinson, but later attacked him severely. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine describes him as “one of the most formidable opponents of the Calvinistic writers of the present day”, who “has greatly contributed to prevent others from being misled by them”.



Marylynn Rouse, 29/05/2015