The Awakening of a Poet, a Priest, and a Politician
“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”~Alfred Lord Tennyson
Samuel Dickey Gordon (1859-1936) tells the sentimental, undocumented story of “The Washerwoman’s Prayer.” According to Dickey, she lived, a good while ago, in old London: a consecrated woman, grayhaired, and stooped, from spending many hours a day over a washtub and ironing board. She supposedly had a son who ran away to sea in his teens, and for years she did not know where he was. Many times her tears mingled with her suds as she prayed for her boy upon the high seas, she knew not where. And the prayer was answered. John came to Jesus. He began telling others about Jesus, and he became known as the “sailor preacher” of London and was the means of turning men by the thousands to Jesus. Or so the story goes.
If the story is true, the woman would have been the boy’s step-mother because the boy, John Newton (1725-1807), lost his birth mother when he was only seven. His dad, a seaman, remarried and, when the boy was eleven, Dad took John with him aboard ship. In 1744 when he was nearly twenty, John was pressed into the Royal Navy and spent a year aboard the HMS Harwich before working his way to a more lucrative employment, plying the slave trade off the coast of Guinea. According to his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton (1764), on 10 March 1748, when his ship was caught in a storm, John experienced a religious awakening, but never gave up his trade. A family friend helped him get another job on another ship, so he could continue traveling between Liverpool and Africa, the West Indies and England.
It was illness that forced Newton out of the hands-on slave-trafficking to a desk job at the custom house, near port, collecting taxes. Shorebound, he became active in Christian evangelism; but it would be the mid-1760s, when he was forty or more, before he would be ordained a priest. He was appointed curate of a church in Olney, Buckinghamshire, northwest of London and began to write sermons and hymns.
Olney was a poor village of a couple thousand homes and was known for lace-making. While homemakers and mothers were working up to twelve hours a day tatting, their children, “ill-fed child savages,” wandered the streets unsupervised, getting into mischief. Newton wanted to help. To this end, his patron, John Thornton, provided £200 a year to keep open house and provide for the poor and the needy.
The area around Buckinghamshire was associated with religious Dissent. When Newton settled in Olney, there were still two Dissenting chapels. Equidistance from Olney had lived two well-known Dissenters: John Bunyan (1628-1688), the Bedford tinker, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, and Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) of Northampton, who wrote 400 hymns, one titled “O Happy Day.” Newton could identify. His own mother was a Dissenter. So he fell right in and quickly became a popular preacher. His first year the church was expanded to accommodate the crowds.
Among those Newton touched was the young, melancholy poet William Cowper (1731-1800), son of the Anglican priest, John Cowper [pronounced Cooper], Chaplain to King George II. Like Newton, Cowper had lost his mother when he was young. Cowper was educated at Westminster, acquired a love of Classical literature, trained for the law, and was called to the Bar (1754); but given to bouts of depression, he abandoned the profession and was institutionalized in Dr Nathaniel Cotton’s Asylum in St Albans. Dr Cotton, an Evangelical clergyman, led him to the Lord.
After he recovered, Cowper stayed on at the asylum until he and his servant found lodging at Huntington with his brother John, a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University. At Huntington Cowper met a student, William Unwin, who introduced Cowper to his parents: the Reverend Morley and Mary Unwin, with whom he began to board. Unfortunately, Pastor Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, forcing his family out of the Vicarage. At Newton’s suggestion, the widow, Mary, and her daughter, Susanna, with Cowper, now age thirty-six, relocated to Olney, Newton’s parish, where they stayed for almost two decades. For the next thirty years, when he was not staying at the asylum with Cotton or at the Vicarage with Newton, the ever-dependent Cowper boarded regularly with Mary Unwin, some years his senior, whom he regarded as a surrogate mother.
Despite his melancholia, these were productive years for Cowper. Not only did he work as poet, lyricist, correspondent, and translator, but he also became an unpaid lay curator helping with the benevolence fund. And, with the death of his brother in 1770, he came into a small legacy.
In 1769 Mary became seriously ill and almost died. During this suspenseful event—she recovered—Newton, who was inspired by events around him, wrote “Oh for a closer walk with God.”
About this time, the story goes, Cowper thought to drown himself in the river—probably the Ouse River, on which Olney lay—and called a cab. The driver became lost in the fog. The horse stopped. When Cowper stepped from the cab, lo and behold, he found himself safe again at his front door. A wondering Cowper wrote “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
Meanwhile, Mary’s children were moving up and away. The year of her illness, her son, William, became rector of Stock in Essex; and, afterward, only occasionally visited his mother in Olney. In 1774 her daughter, Susannah, left their home at Orchard Side to marry the Reverend Matthew Powley, thereby leaving her mother unchaperoned with her boarder, Cowper.
The year of Mary’s illness, 1769, Newton moved the parish’s weekly prayer-meeting to Lord Dartmouth’s mansion, the Great House, to accommodate increasing numbers. For their first meeting at Great House Cowper wrote “Jesus Where’er Thy People Meet.” This was so well received that Newton suggested he and Cowper write hymns to expound the weekly texts for the poor, uneducated members of Newton’s parish—whom Newton described as “low and dirty”; Cowper as “half-starved and ragged.”
These poems were published as the Olney Hymns (1779), a large songbook of lyrics, without accompanying musical composition. Among the original 348 hymns were 66 by Cowper—e.g., “God Moves in Mysterious Ways” and “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood”—and 282 by Newton—e.g., “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” While he was living at Olney, Cowper also produced The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1782) and The Task (1785).
Not long after publishing the Olney Hymns, Newton left Olney to become Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth Church, London. Cowper and Newton stayed in touch by correspondence and occasional visits. With Newton went the Thornton benevolence fund, and conditions in Olney declined. According to Cowper, by summer 1780 hundreds of people in Olney were starving.
Newton’s replacement at Olney was Thomas Scott (1747-1821), a refined gentleman, a “good moral man,” who “didn’t need a Saviour.” Scott, a farmer’s son, had learned to read at his mother’s knee and eventually was sent to a distant school. He came back, was apprenticed at age fifteen to a nearby surgeon, but was dismissed for bad conduct. Disgraced, he returned home and worked on the farm, for ten years, before becoming ordained as an Anglican priest at age twenty-five. An unbeliever, he chose ministry merely as a profession.
Scott’s first appointment (1772) was to Buckinghamshire, but he was also to service Stoke Goldington and Weston Underwood. A few years later he swapped secondary curates and serviced nearby Ravenstone. During this period, Scott, an unconverted priest, struck up a friendship and correspondence with Newton, curator at neighboring Olney. Through Newton, Scott, who related his conversion and spiritual journey in The Force of Truth (1779), came to Jesus. Scott, by tongue and pen, helped to sway many persons to Jesus.
Scott stayed at Olney only four years, then he too moved to London, where he became a hospital chaplain, walking miles to his post each Sunday. In London he began publishing A Commentary On the Whole Bible and, with Newton, founded the Church Missionary Society (1799), supported by the Eclectic Society, the Clapham Sect, and other active Evangelical Christians. Their number included Henry Thornton, Thomas Babington, and William Wilberforce.
In 1784 Cowper began translating Homer. The following year an anonymous donor settled on Cowper an annuity of £50 a year, which, of course, helped a poor man struggling with sanity—and basically unable to work. The next year (1786) a Cowper relative, Lady Hesketh, arranged a move from Olney for Cowper and Mary to The Lodge in nearby Weston Underwood. No sooner had they settled than Mary received word that her son, William, had died. Newton, by this time involved in the Anti-Slave Trade Movement, published “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” (1788), apologizing for the part he had played in the dirty business and describing the horrific conditions he had witnessed firsthand; he encouraged Cowper, in similar fashion, to publish his poem “Pity for Poor Africans” (1788).
From relatives in Norfolk, Cowper received a portrait of his mother, which inspired his poem “On Receipt of My Mother’s Picture” (1791), for which he received £1000. Mary suffered two strokes (1792), which left her partially paralysed and Cowper in the awkward position of playing the role of caregiver to his caregiver. His relative, Lady Hesketh, tried to help. At first she was commuting to their place, then (1794) decided to move in with them to manage the home at Weston Underwood—which distressed Mary. To help with expenses, William Hayley obtained a £300-a-year pension for Cowper; still, the strain of Mary’s health unnerved the already-unstable poet. The pair broke up housekeeping, moved in with relatives for a time, then (1796) relocated to Norfolk, where Mary died that December. Cowper revised his Homer (1799) and came out with another powerful poem The Castaway (1799), voicing his despair.
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he. ~William Cowper
Cowper himself died the following spring, 25 April 1800. William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a politician and lay preacher, was asked to be the first president of the Newton’s Church Missionary Society; he declined and became vice president instead. The founding Secretary was Newton’s friend, Thomas Scott, the biblical commentator, who left in 1803 to become Rector of Aston Sandford, Buckinghamshire, where he served until his death. Still, Scott’s four-year Secretarialship, though relatively brief, paved the way for Josiah Pratt, who served as his successor a couple of decades and provided an early impetus for the Society. The first missionaries, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Württemberg, trained at the Berlin Seminary, were sent in 1804; the first Anglo missionaries, in 1815. The Society’s early 19th-century work in the Mediterranean inspired a translation of the Bible into Amharic, a Semitic language, as well as the posting of missionaries to Ethiopia.
William Wilberforce began his public career in 1780, about the time Newton and Cowper published their Olney Hymns and Newton left for London. Eventually Wilberforce became an independent Member of Parliament, where he served nearly three decades (1784-1812). Not long after he entered public life (1784) Wilberforce went on a tour of the Continent with friend and family, returned (1785) to support William Pitt’s proposals for reform, then returned to Italy, where he read Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Stirred, Wilburforce began to rise early for morning devotions and journal-writing.
After his conversion experience, wondering if he should remain in public life, Wilberforce sought guidance from John Newton, the famous London Rector. Both Newton and Pitt advised Wilberforce to stay in politics and serve God in the best way he knew how: his story told in the film Amazing Grace (2006). This led to his lifelong interest in social reform. When he met Thomas Clarkson and other activists in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade—Granville Sharp, Hannah More, and Charles Middleton—Wilberforce was eager to work. Almost the whole time he served in Parliament he campaigned for the passage of the Slave Trade Act (1807), which stopped the ships, and the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), which ended slavery in the British Empire. He died three days after hearing the act would pass.
According to Gordon’s story, Wilberforce’s practical view of Christianity touched a vicar of the Church of England, in the Channel Isles, Legh Richmond (1772-1827). The result was that Richmond took an interest in the British and Foreign Bible Society and Newton’s Church Missionary Society; and in 1805 Richmond even served as assistant chaplain at Lock Hospital with Thomas Scott. Richmond was transformed by what was happening in Britain, and he knew the story of The Dairyman’s Daughter (1814), Elizabeth Wallbridge, who had given her proud, willful heart to Christ and become a changed person. Richmond’s little 52-page story of her conversion went into over forty foreign translations, sold millions of copies, and went into everything from peasants’ huts to kings’ palaces. The most popular book of its size and genre, it has touched multiplied millions of lives.
After the first edition of Newton’s “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” sold out, Newton produced another and sent a copy of the second edition to every member of Parliament. He also testified at Parliamentary hearings. Months after Parliament had voted to abolish the slave trade John Newton died at year’s end. He was first buried at St Mary Woolnoth, but in 1893 his remains were moved to St Peter and Paul, Olney. His epitaph, written by Newton himself, bears these words:
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk
once an infidel and libertine
a servant of slaves in Africa was,
by the rich grace of our
LORD and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST,
preserved, restored, pardoned
and appointed to preach the faith
he had long laboured to destroy.
near 16 years as curate of this parish,
and 28 years as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth.
Such is the power of influence. At the center of the whole thing, according to Gordon, was a consecrated mother, grayhaired, stooped shouldered, with stubby fingers, bending over a scrub board and ironing board, praying for her son, John Newton. The answer was not only the conversion of her son, but through him the awakening of a poet, a priest, and a politician; the creation of the Olney Hymns; the formation of a mission society; the end of slavery in the British Empire; and one of the most popular conversion stories ever written.
“The force of prayer is greater than any possible combination of man-controlled powers, because prayer is man’s greatest means of trapping the infinite resources of God.”
~J Edgar Hoover
Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee