« PreviousContinue »
or less whoever ventures within their baneful influence; so the reformed subject of these Memoirs was happily a remarkable instance of the reverse. The change that took place in his heart, after such a course of profligacy, affords a convincing demonstration of the truth and force of Christianity. Instead of proceeding as a blight in society, he became a blessing; his future course was a striking example of the beneficial effects of the Gospel ; and that, not only from the pulpit and by his pen, but also by his conversation in the large circle of his acquaintance, of which there is, yet living, a multitude of witnesses.
Impressed, therefore, with the advantages which I conceived would result from the publication of these Memoirs, I communicated my design some years ago to Mr. N. Whatever tended to promote that cause in which his heart had been long engaged, I was sure would not fail to obtain his concurrence. He accordingly promised to afford whatever materials might be necessary, beyond those which his printed Narrative contained. He promised also to read over and revise whatever was added from my own observation; and he soon after brought me an Account in writing, containing every thing memorable which he recollected before the commencement of his Narrative. I shall, therefore, detain the reader no longer than to assure him, that the whole of the following Memoirs (except what relates to Mr. N.'s character) was submitted to him in MS. while he was capable of correcting it, and received his sanction.
These Memoirs seem naturally to commence with the Account mentioned in the Preface, and which I here transcribe ;
"I was born in London, the 24th July, 1725, old style. My parents, though not wealthy, were respectable. My father was many years master of a ship in the Mediterranean trade. In the year 1748 he went Governor of York Fort, in Hudson's Bay, where he died in the
year 1750. “My mother was a Dissenter, a pious woman, and a member of the late Dr. Jenning's church. She was of a weak, consumptive habit, and loved retirement; and as I was her only child, she made it the chief business and pleasure of her life to instruct me, and bring me up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I have been told, that from my birth she had, in her mind, devoted me to the ministry; and that, had she lived till I was of a proper age, I was to have been sent to St. Andrews, in Scotland, to be educated. But the Lord had appointed otherwise. My mother died before I was seven years of age.
"I was rather of a sedentary turn, not active and playful, as boys commonly are, but seemed as willing to learn as my mother was to teach me. I had some capacity, and a retentive memory. When I was four years old, I could read (hard names excepted) as well as I can now; and could likewise repeat the answers to the questions in the Assembly's Shorter Catechism, with the proofs; and all Dr. Watts's smaller Catechisms, and his Children's Hymns.
“When my father returned from sea, after my mother's death, he married again. My new mother was the daughter of a substantial grazier at Aveley in Essex. She seemed willing to adopt and bring me up; but, after two or three years, she had a son of her own, who engrossed the old gentleman's notice. My father was a very sensible and a moral man, as the world rates morality, but neither he nor my step-mother were under the impressions of religion ; I was, therefore, much left to myself, to mingle with idle and wicked boys, and soon learnt their ways.
"I never was at school but about two years (from my eighth to my tenth it was a boarding-school at Stratford in Essex. Though my father left me much to run about the streets, yet, when under his eye, he kept me at a great distance. I am persuaded he loved me, but he seemed not willing that I should know it. I was with him in a state of fear and bondage. His sternness, together with the severity of my schoolmaster, broke and overawed my spirit, and almost made me a dolt; so that part of the two years I was at school, instead of making progress, I nearly forgot all my good mother had taught me.
“ The day I was eleven years old, I went on board my father's ship in Longreach. I made five voyages with him to the Mediterranean. In the course of the last voyage, he left me some months at Alicant in Spain, with a merchant, a particular friend of his, with whom I might have done well, if I had behaved well. But by this time my sinful propensities had gathered strength by habit : I was very wicked, and therefore very foolish; and, being my own enemy, I seemed determined that nobody should be my friend. "My father left the sea in the year 1742. I made one voyage afterwards to
Venice before the mast; and soon after my return, was impressed on board the Harwich. Then began my awfully mad career, as recorded in the Narrative; to which, and to the Letters to a wife, I must refer you for any farther dates and incidents.I am truly yours,
" JOHN NEWTON. “ Dec. 19, 1795."
A few articles may be added to this account from the Narrative, where we find, that his pious mother "stored his memory with whole chapters, and smaller portions of Scripture, catechisms, hymns, and poems; and often commended him with prayers and tears to God :" also, that in his sixth year he began to learn Latin, though the intended plan of his education was soon broken; and that he lost this valuable parent, July 11, 1732.
We also find, that, after his father's second marriage, he was sent to the school above mentioned; and in the last of the two years he spent there, a new usher came, who, observing and suiting his temper, he prosecuted Latin with great eagerness, and before he was ten years old he had reached and maintained the first post in the second class, which, in that school, was Tully and Virgil. But by being pushed forward too fast, and not properly grounded (a method too common in inferior schools,) he soon lost all he had learned.
In the next and most remarkable period of Mr. N.'s life, we must be conducted by the Narrative above mentioned. It has been observed, that at eleven years of age he was taken by his father to sea. His father was a man of remarkably good sense, and great knowledge of the world; he took much care of his son's morals, but could not supply a mother's part. The father had been educated at a Jesuits' college, near Seville in Spain, and had an air of such distance and severity in his carriage as discouraged his son, who always was in fear when before him, and which deprived him of that influence he might otherwise have had.
From this time to the year 1742, Mr. N. made several voyages, but at considerable intervals: these intervals were chiefly spent in the country, excepting a few months in his fifteenth year, when he was placed, with a very advantageous prospect, at Alicant, already mentioned.
About this period of his life, with a temper and conduct exceedingly various, he was often disturbed with religious convictions; and being from a child fond of reading, he met with Bennet's “Christian Oratory:” and though he understood little of it, the course of life it recommended, appeared very desirable. He therefore began to pray, to read the Scriptures, to keep a diary, and thought himself religious; but soon became weary of it, and gave it up. He then learned to curse and to blaspheme, and was exceedingly wicked when out of the view of his parents, though at so early a period.
Upon his being thrown from a horse near a dangerous hedge-row, newly cut, his conscience suggested to him the dreadful consequences of appearing in such a state before God. This put him, though but for a time, upon breaking off his profane practices; but the consequence of these struggles between sin and conscience was, that on every relapse he sunk into still greater depths of wickedness. He was roused again by the loss of a companion, who had agreed to go with him one Sunday on board a man-of-war. Mr. N. providentially coming too late, the boat had gone without him, and was overset, by which his companion and several others were drowned. He was exceedingly affected at the funeral of this companion, to think, that by the delay of a few minutes (which at the time occasioned much anger) his life had been preserved: but this also was soon forgotten. The perusal of the “Family Instructor” produced another temporary reformation. In short, he took up and laid aside a religious profession three or four different times before he was sixteen years of age.
“ All this while,” says he, "my heart was insincere; I often saw the necessity of religion, as a means of escaping hell, but I loved sin, and was unwilling to for
sake it. I was so strangely blind and stupid, that sometimes, when I have been determined upon things which I knew were sinful, I could not go on quietly till I had first despatched my ordinary task of prayer, in which I have grudged every moment of the time; when this was finished, my conscience was in some measure pacified, and I could rush into folly with little remorse.”
But his last resorm was the most remarkable. “Of this period,” says he, " at least of some part of it, I may say in the apostle's words, · After the strictest sect of our religion, I lived a Pharisee.' I did every thing that might be expected from a person entirely ignorant of God's righteousness, and desirous to establish his own. I spent the greatest part of every day in reading the Scriptures, and in meditation and prayer. I fasted often: I even abstained from all animal food for three months. I would hardly answer a question, for fear of speaking an idle word. I seemed to bemoan my former miscarriages very earnestly, and sometimes with tears: in short, I became an ascetic, and endeavoured, as far as my situation would permit, to renounce society, that I might avoid temptation."
This reformation, it seems, continued for more than two years. But," he adds, " it was a poor religion; it left me in many respects under the power of sin; and, so far as it prevailed, only tended to make me gloomy, stupid, unsociable, and useless."
That it was a poor religion, and quite unlike that which he afterwards possessed, will appear from what immediately follows: for had it been taken up upon more scriptural ground, and been attended with that internal evidence and satisfaction, which true religion only brings, he could not so soon have fallen a dupe to such a writer as Shaftesbury. It was at a petty shop at Middleburgh, in Holland, that he first met with a volume of the Characteristics. The declamation, called by his Lordship a Rhapsody, suited the romantic turn of his mind. Unaware of its tendency, he imagined he had found a valuable guide. This book was always in his hand, till he could nearly repeat the Rhapsody. Though it produced no immediate effect, it operated like a slow poison, and prepared the way for all that followed.
About the year 1742, having lately come from a voyage, his father, not intending to return to sea, was contriving for Mr. N.'s settlement in the world. But to settle a youth who had no spirit for business, who knew but little of men or things, who was of a romantic turn—a medley, as he expressed it, of religion, philosophy, and indolence, and quite averse to order-must prove a great difficulty. At length a merchant in Liverpool, an intimate friend of the father, and afterwards a singular friend to the son, offered to send him for some years to Jamaica, and undertook the charge of his future welfare. This was consented to, and preparation made for the voyage, which was to be prosecuted the following week. In the mean time, he was sent by his father, on some business, to a place a few miles beyond Maidstone in Kent. But the journey, which was designed to last but three or four days, gave such a turn to his mind as roused him from his habitual indolence, and produced a series of important and interesting occurrences.
A few days before this intended journey, he received an invitation to visit some distant relations in Kent. They were particular friends of his mother, who died at their house; but a coolness having taken place upon his father's second marriage, all intercourse between them had ceased. As his road lay within half a mile of the house, and he obtained his father's leave to call on them, he went thither, and met with the kindest reception from these friends. They had two daughters: it seems the elder had een intended, by both the mothers, his future wife. Almost at the first sight of this girl, then under fourteen years of age, he was impressed with such an affection for her, as appears to have equalled all that the writers of romance have imagined.
"" ['soon lost,” says he, "all sense of religion, and became deaf to the remonstrances of conscience and prudence, but my regard for her was always the same; and I may, perhaps, venture to say, that none of the scenes of misery ard wickedness 1 afterwards experienced, ever banished her a single bour together from my waking thoughts for the seven following years.
His heart being now riveted to a particular object, every thing with which he was concerned appeared in a new light. He could not now bear the thought of living at such a distance as Jamaica, for four or five years, and therefore determined not to go thither. He dared not communicate with his father on this point, but, instead of three days, he staid three weeks in Kent, till the ship had sailed, and then he returned to London. His father, though highly displeased, became reconciled, and in a little time he sailed with a friend of his father's to Venice.
In this voyage, being a common sailor, and exposed to the company of his comrades, he began to relax from the sobriety which he had preserved, in some degree, for more than two years. Sometimes, pierced with convictions, he made a few faint efforts, as formerly, to stop; and though not yet absolutely profligate, he was making large strides towards a total apostacy from God. At length he received a remarkable check by a dream, which made a very strong, though not abiding impression upon his mind.
I shall relate this dream in his own words, referring to the Narrative those who wish to know his opinion of dreams, and his application of this one in particular to his own circumstances :
“The scene presented to my imagination was the harbour of Venice, where we had lately been. I thought it was night, and my watch upon the deck; and that, as I was walking to and fro by myself, a person came to me (I do not remember from whence) and brought me a ring, with an express charge to keep it carefully; assuring me, that while I preserved that ring I should be happy and successful : but, if I lost or parted with it, I must expect nothing but trouble and misery. I accepted the present and the terms willingly, not in the least doubting my own care to preserve it, and highly satisfied to have my happiness in my own keeping. I was engaged in these thoughts, when a second person came to me, and, observing the ring on my finger, took occasion to ask me some questions concerning it. I readily told him its virtues; and his answer expressed a surprise at my weakness, in expecting such effects from a ring. I think he reasoned with me some time upon the impossibility of the thing; and at length urged me, in direct terms, to throw it away. At first I was shocked at the proposal ; but his insinuations prevailed. I began to reason and doubt, and at last plucked it off my finger, and dropped it over the ship's side into the water, which it had no sooner touched than I saw, at the same instant, a terrible fire burst out from a range of mountains (a part of the Alps,) which appeared at some distance behind the city of Venice. I saw the hills as distinct as if awake, and that they were all in flames. I perceived, too late, my folly; and my tempter with an air of insult informed me, that all the mercy God had in reserve for me was comprised in that ring, which I had wilfully thrown away. I understood, that I must now go with him to the burning mountains, and that all the flames I saw were kindled on my account. I trembled, and was in a great agony ; so that it was surprising I did not then awake: but my dream continued, and when I thought myself upon the point of a constrained departure, and stood self-condemned, without plea or hope, suddenly either a third person, or the same who brought the ring at first, (I am not certain which,) came to me, and demanded the cause of my grief. I told him the plain case, confessing that I had ruined myself wilfully, and deserved no pity. He blamed my rashness, and asked if I should be wiser, supposing I had my ring again. I could hardly answer to this, for I thought it was gone beyond recal. I believe, indeed, I had not time to answer, before I saw this unexpected friend go down under the water, just in the spot where I had dropped it, and he soon returned, bringing the ring with him: the moment he came on board, the flames in the mountains were extinguished, and my seducer left me. Then was 'the prey taken frem the hand of the mighty, and the lawful captive delivered.' My fears were at an end, and with joy and gratitude I approached my kind deliverer to receive the ring again ; but he refused to return it, and spoke to this effect : “If you should be intrusted with this ring again, you would very soon bring yourself into the same distress; you are not able to keep it, but I will preserve it for