FAITHFUL ARE THE WOUNDS OF A FRIEND
Not only did John Newton excel as ‘a son of consolation’; he also possessed the rare faculty of faithful yet loving reproof. His friendship was too genuine to suffer sin in a brother. Of this the letter we are about to quote is a striking illustration. It is long, but would be spoiled by any attempt at abbreviation.
There had been a close intimacy subsisting between Mr. Newton and Dr. Ford. The latter had laboured for twenty years with much devoted zeal and earnestness, consecrating his learning and talents to the promotion of the gospel in his parish of Melton Mowbray; but after that period, to the exceeding grief of his pious friends, his zeal abated, and the duties in which he had taken so much delight were omitted or discharged as matters of form. It is to be feared that his wit and conversational powers had proved a snare to him. He was led to associate with the world, and to imbibe its spirit. Deeply sorrowing, his neighbour Mr. Robinson of Leicester, wrote to Mr. Newton, who addressed his old friend in the following strain of remonstrance:
My Dear Doctor,
It has seemed long since we exchanged a letter, and for some time past I have been purposing and repurposing to write. Week after week has brought its new excuses for delaying, but a letter I lately received from Leicester has put an end to my procrastination. You will not wonder that our common friend, who knows my love to you, who has seen so many proofs of your kind regard to me, and who loves us both, should communicate to me some particulars of his late correspondence with you, and the occasion of it. And I think an attempt to describe the impression his information has made upon my heart would be quite unnecessary.
There have been times (I owe this assurance not to my own yanity, but to multiplied proofs of your friendship) when the very sight of my handwriting in the direction of a letter has given you pleasure before you opened it. If my present preamble should lead you to read this with a different emotion I am sorry. The change is not in me; I feel no abatement in the warmth of my friendship, nor have I knowingly done anything to cause an estrangement in your mind. Nor indeed do I doubt of your love; but I fear my silence would now be more acceptable to you than that frank simplicity with which I formerly used to open my whole heart to you. The event of our friend’s writing affords me but little encouragement to resume the subject; but something, yea, much, is due to the Lord whom we serve, to my own conscience, and to the great regard I bear you; and
something must be risked for such important considerations. Never, surely, did I feel a more earnest desire that the Lord would direct my thoughts and my pen than upon this occasion. His eye is upon me while I write. His eye will be upon when you read. May He touch my heart and yours, and give a happy issue.
Were I capable of listening hastily to rumours and hearsays to your disadvantage you might justly blame me; but, alas! I go upon grounds too sure to be contravened. I have a part of your own letter before me. It is not a tale-bearer, but my dear Dr. Ford himself tells me, “That my zeal and activity have abated is most certain, if they are to be determined by the circumstances of my ministry. I neither preach so frequently, so long, or so loud as I have done, and have entirely omitted the kitchen meeting”. My dear friend, can you really think you were ever too frequent or too earnest in the most active part of your ministry? Are the souls of men, the cause of truth, the honour of our Lord, become of less importance than formerly? Have the world or the devil beaten a parley, made a truce, withdrawn their snares, or discontinued their assaults, so that it is no longer needful for you to be earnest and frequent in warning every one, night and day, publicly and from house to house, as you once did? Were your services in the kitchen so burdensome, so tasteless, so useless, that you saw just reasons for omitting them entirely? and do you feel your omission justified by an increase of light, and peace, and blessedness in your soul since you have declined them? Ah! my friend, truths and facts remain in themselves just as they were; and there never was a moment in your life when your obligations to zeal and activity were stronger upon you than they will be in the hour when this letter reaches you. Bear with me, I have no right to throw a stone at you; while I weep for you I may tremble for myself. The snare in which you have been entangled has been spread for me, and it is not by any power, or wisdom, or goodness of my own that I have escaped it.
I believe you sincere in saying, “When I take my turn to preach I do not know that I keep back any truth which I was wont to deliver heretofore”. But at the same time I fear you are mistaken. I fear there are many important truths respecting the impropriety and danger of worldly compliances, the choice of our company, the fear and favour of man, the small, unsuspected beginnings, and the imperceptible advances of a spiritual decline, and the necessity of a dose attention to maintain a walk with God, and a separation from the world, which are not so obvious to you now in the course of your preaching as heretofore. You will hardly find a heart to warn others against the things in which you allow yourself; or if you could, you might as well keep silence, for your warning would have no weight. you possibly continue to preach the general truths of the gospel, but
(I appeal to yourself) with what effect? There is a way of preaching the truths of the gospel with almost as little success, and therefore with as little offence to the world, as if we were to entertain them with fairy tales.
The sight of Mr. Mozeen revived in my heart a design of revisiting Melton, and I told him I would if I could in the course of the Summer; but since the letter I lately received I must give up the thought till a warm and cordial invitation from you, to be a witness of that blessed change in your views and conduct, which I am daily praying for, shall make me long for wings to fly to you at an hour’s notice. As things stand at present, considering what I have known and heard and seen at Melton in time past, my heart must be made of marble if I were capable of walking throughout the town with such emotions or distress as would engage the notice of every person who saw me. Your case reminds me of what Lucan says of Pompey, “Stat magni nominis umbra”, or, to keep to Scripture, the case of Samson. Alas! that there should be those who once saw you in your strength that can now rejoice to see you shorn, and say (I doubt not to the purport, if not in the words of the Philistines), “Call for Samson and let him make us sport”.
For as to the new connections, to which, I suppose the change I lament may be, in part, ascribed, I am persuaded of two things.
1. That formerly, when they affected to despise you and treated you ill, your uniform, consistent deportment as a gospel minister struck them with a secret awe, and constrained them to reverence you in their hearts.
2. That now, though they profess a regard, and though I know how much it is in your power to make yourself agreeable in company, they secretly, and perhaps openly, if you were absent, triumph over you. In time past you have hurt their cause and pained their consciences, so that now they do not consider you as a friend, but rather as an enemy whom they have taken captive (whom I trust the Lord God of Israel will yet deliver out of their hands). They smile, while your poor people, your kitchen people, once so dear to your heart, must weep to see themselves like a flock forsaken of the shepherd. With you the enemies of the gospel will now observe terms of decorum; but I am pained to think what they who love you for the truth’s sake must suffer from their taunts and reproaches.
I hope Mrs. Newton and I are the only persons in London who know of these things. The dearest friend I have shall not hear of them, in the first instance, from us. But love is suspicious, and sometimes when people say, “Have you heard lately of Dr. Ford?” I think I see a meaning in their looks which they are unwilling to express.
After all, I trust this dark cloud will one day be dispelled, and you
will shine again, and live to be avenged of the enemy for the loss of your hair. Surely you love the Lord! Surely He loves you! You are alien, but I trust you will arise. I am no prophet; I know not in what
way He will recover you. The shortest way may seem hard, but it
may be done. Humble yourself, my friend, before Him, and pray for the return of that Spirit which can make your bonds like flax burnt by the fire. Oh! break off these ensnaring connections at once, cito, citius, citissime. One bold, determined effort in the name and strength of the Lord will set you free. But if not, it seems probable to me that the Lord in mercy will free you Himself in a more leisurely and painful way. I expect trouble and grief of heart will sooner or later arise to you from these very connections to which you have unhappily attached yourself. You will meet with mortifications and disappointments which you are not aware of, which will make you feel it was an evil and a bitter thing to forsake the Lord, the fountain of living waters, for such muddy, leaking pits. Then you will say, “I will return unto Him from whom I have wandered, for then it was better with me than now”.
And now I close my painful task. The Lord knows every word I have written has been dictated by grief and love. I doubtless wish to hear from you, but if I have offended you do not write till you have quite forgiven me. We join in best love to dear Mrs. Ford, love to Mr. Mozeen, if you mention that you have heard from me.
I am your afflicted but most affectionate brother,
Happily the good man saw his error, and made public confession of it, and Mr. Newton . . . visited him again.
(Extracted from John Newton – An Autobiography and Narrative by Josiah Bull, (1868), pp.265-270.