O Lord, truly I am Your servant; I am Your servant, the son of Your maidservant; You have loosed my bonds. Psalm 116:16
Little John Newton, six years old, hoisted himself up in his chair, leaned across the table, and stared out the parlor window at the sunlight dancing on the surface of the Thames. Away flew his thoughts, beyond the river and the estuary, over the wide world, to the dim and distant figure of his father, a stern-faced man in a merchant-captain’s coat, cresting the blue Mediterranean swells at the wheel of his ship.
“What are God’s works of providence?”
John turned at the sound of his mother’s voice, gentle but insistent at his side. A dog-eared copy of The Westminster Shorter Catechism lay open in her lap.
“What are God’s works of providence?” she repeated, glancing up at him.
The boy brushed the hair from his eyes. Then he blinked, rubbed his nose, and grinned. She gave him an encouraging nod.
“God’s works of providence,” he ventured, brightening beneath her smile, “are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing of all His creatures, and all their actions.”
“Good!” she beamed. “And what special act of providence did God exercise towards man in the estate wherein he was created?”
John bit his lip and frowned. “I’m sorry, Mother,” he said, his father’s grim and serious face flashing before his mind’s eye. “I guess I haven’t learned that one yet.”
“No matter,” she said, hooking a finger under his chin and lifting his face up to her own. “You shall learn it tomorrow! But can you remember the song we sang together yesterday?”
“Oh, yes!” he said, clapping his hands. “Let’s sing it again!”
She lifted him into her lap, and the fresh, clean smell of her white linen apron and blue taffeta skirts filled his nostrils.
He snuggled close to her and they began:
Let children hear the mighty deeds which God performed of old;
Which in our younger years we saw, and which our fathers told.
“Another!” he shouted when they had finished. “Can we sing another?”
“Why not?” she said, taking another book from the table— The Hymns and Psalms of the Reverend Isaac Watts. “Can you read this?” she asked, holding it up in front of him.
“O God,” he said, squinting at the page, “our Help in ages past, our Hope for years to come, Our Shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal Home.”
From somewhere on the street below came the laughter and shouts of neighborhood children. They were loud and exuberant at their play, but John never heard their calls. He was too full of the scent of his mother, too enraptured with the words of the song as it rose and fell on the gentle waves of her voice. He was in his own personal heaven.
“If the foundations are destroyed,” says David in the eleventh Psalm, “what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). It’s a question well worth pondering.
But suppose the foundations are not destroyed. Suppose that, on the contrary, they are laid deep in the hidden bedrock of the unchanging grace of God. Suppose that they are so well established and so painstakingly constructed that they stand unshaken despite the ravages of time and tide and chance. What then?
In that case, the righteous can hope to do all things (Philippians 4:13). In that case, we can expect the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to live again. Best of all, we can look forward to the happy spectacle of prodigals coming home to the house built firm upon the Rock.
The story of the Reverend John Newton is the story of a beloved son, errant blasphemer, slave of slaves, and preacher of the everlasting gospel. It’s a story that ends well because it begins well—in spite of a bleak and disastrous “middle passage.”
We don’t want to miss that good beginning. It’s absolutely essential to everything that follows. Because for all its subsequent sordidness and sorrow, our narrative starts with a tender, touching scene: a child on his mother’s knee, singing hymns and reciting verses from the Bible. An unlikely point of departure, perhaps, for a foul-mouthed sailor and a dealer in human flesh.
Elizabeth Newton, by her son’s own account, was “a pious experienced Christian”1—a woman whose life was built around a solid vertical core. She was a genuine believer whose knowledge of God went deeper than mere doctrinal orthodoxy and whose experience of the Savior’s love was warm and immediate and inextricably interwoven with the details of everyday existence.
That in itself simply had to rub off on young John. No doubt it would have even if his mother had never said a word to him about it. There is, after all, a great deal of truth in the old maxim that faith is more effectively caught than taught. But Mrs. Newton wasn’t the kind to be content with such assurances. No; she personally directed every aspect of her son’s education. She saw to it that the seeds of God’s righteousness, truth, and mercy were planted deep in the soil of his soul from the earliest moments of childhood.
And so, almost from the time her son could speak, Mrs. Newton began to teach him. She took his training firmly in hand with enthusiasm, devotion, and fervent prayer. The results were impressive. At three her boy was already learning to read. By four he had practically mastered the skill. At five he was memorizing Scripture, enduring the rigors of the Catechism, and filling his mind with the words and melodies of the hymns of Isaac Watts. By six he was ready to embark on the study of Latin. And all because of the industry and care of a loving mother whose heart’s desire was that her son might someday serve the Lord as a minister of the Word.
But then tragedy struck. Elizabeth died before John turned seven, the victim of her own weak constitution and the ravages of consumption (or tuberculosis), one of the deadliest and most feared maladies of the day. As a result, by the time John was twenty-one, his closest companions would have been hard pressed to detect even the slightest traces of his mother’s influence upon him. Among other things, anger at God over her death drove him to abandon the path she had taught him to tread. But that, as we shall see, wasn’t to be the end of the story.
Though in young manhood, Newton did his level best to “sin away” every last vestige of these early impressions, he never fully succeeded. “They returned again and again,” he tells us, “and it was very long before I could wholly shake them off; and when the Lord at length opened my eyes, I found a great benefit from the recollection of them.”2 In other words, Mrs. Newton’s chickens eventually came home to roost.
The well-worn and oft-quoted words of Proverbs 22:6 immediately come to mind: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” It is true, of course, that many godly parents have suffered greatly because of their wayward sons’ and daughters’ ill choices. As wise as this saying may be, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an unqualified promise or absolute guarantee. But neither should the life-giving principle it conveys be too easily dismissed. It does, after all, make a very real difference how a child is raised. Moses acknowledged this in his instructions to the people of Israel:
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. Deuteronomy 6:6-7
It needs to be said that, allowing for anomalies and departures from the rule, this kind of investment generally yields a rich dividend, a dividend that can manifest itself in surprising ways. Consider the case of young Samuel, whose course in life was fixed when his mother Hannah “lent him to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:28); or Timothy, whose “genuine faith . . . dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother Eunice” (2 Timothy 1:5). We know that God can use anyone or anything to draw hearts to Himself and prepare a pathway for His people. And yet there is no substitute for the tender affections of a godly mother. Newton himself felt this keenly: “[My father] was a man of remarkable good sense, and great knowledge of the world; he took great care of my morals, but could not supply my mother’s part.”3
“In the Torah,” observes Chaya Saskonin, a member of Brooklyn’s Lubavitch Jewish Community, “women are called akeret ha-bayit, the foundation of the home. That doesn’t mean washing dishes. It means educating our children in everything we think about life. That’s the nature of what a mother is.”4
And so it is. It’s also the nature of the God who made mothers; the God who weaves each one of us together in the womb (Psalm 139:13) and shelters us under His wings like a brooding hen (Psalm 17:8; Matthew 23:37). This is the same God who, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, both gives and takes away: the God who granted John Newton an excellent parent for his early spiritual upbringing, only to remove her from his life at an unexpected hour. It seemed a cruel blow. But the upshot was that John, in the fullness of time, became “an unusual proof of His patience, providence, and grace.”5
No wonder they call that grace “amazing.”