This article is about the friendship of John Newton, the former slave-trader, with William Cowper

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1986. 7 pages.

John Newton's Friendship With William Cowper

John Newton, the former slave-trader, first met William Cowper the ex-gentleman rake, in Huntingdon at the home of Mrs. Mary Unwin, Cowper's landlady, a few days after the tragic death of Mrs. Unwin's husband. It was the year 1767. Cowper had recently been converted and Newton had become the new curate of Olney Parish Church (Buckinghamshire). Cowper was so impressed with the faith and fervour of Newton that he quickly decided to move over to Olney where he could be assured of hearing the gospel. Mrs. Newton found Cowper accommo­dation at Orchard Side, not far from the Vicarage, and, taking Mrs. Unwin with him as his housekeeper, he made Orchard Side his home for the next sixteen years.

One could not imagine two more different personalities than John Newton and William Cowper. The first, the son of a sea-captain, was a man who had lived a life of amazing adventure, whose biography would be the delight of any young boy dreaming about piracy, peril on the roaring main and swashbuckling escapades on shore. He had a great way with children and even long after he had left the sea he would sit them on his knee, sing them an old sea shanty and tell them tales of ocean-going life that held them spellbound.

Deep in the heart of busy London there is a tiny Church called St Mary Woolnoth which was Newton's place of service before he died. On the north wall there is a plaque containing Newton's testimony to how God changed him:

John Newton / Clerk / Once an infidel and libertine / a servant of slaves in Africa / was / by the rich mercy / of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned / and / appointed to preach the faith / he had long laboured to destroy.

William Cowper, who never left his native shores, was born into a family of Baronets, Earls and Lord Chancellors with close genetic connections with a long line of Kings. Of his godly parents Cowper wrote, looking back years after their deaths:

My boast is not, that I deduce my birth
From loins enthron'd, and rulers of the earth,
But higher far my proud pretentions rise –
The son of parents pass'd into the skies.

Cowper was educated at Westminster and studied law at the Middle and Inner Temples. He became a member of the notorious Nonsense Club and spent several years writing ballads, dancing all through the night, sleeping all morning and going hunting for the rest of the day. After a period of intense nervous disorder, which was obviously an inherited complaint, Cowper came to know the Lord in a mental asylum. He was recuperating from his illness when he met Newton.

The two men had also a great deal in common. They had both experi­enced great love from their mothers whom they had lost early in childhood. They enjoyed the same faith which, by some, has come to be called Calvinism but which they rightly called the gospel. They had both such a special kind of humour that when reading their jokes one cannot tell whether they are typical Cowperian expressions of joy or typical Newtonian. They were both literary men who have charmed Christians with their poetry, hymns and prose for the last two hundred years. They had such a great love and respect for each other's characters, talents and abilities that they remained friends for the rest of their lives. It was to Newton that Cowper addressed his last (extant) letter and it was Newton along with Samuel Greatheed, who preached Cowper's funeral sermons.

One of the odd fates of history is that the picture painted above, which will be shown to be the true picture, is not accepted by most commen­tators, biographers, literary critics and even very many Christian writers. These earnest people cannot see that there was a friendship of equal standing between the two as men of God and tend to view both Newton and Cowper as they think they must have been before their conversions. The way Newton and Cowper are handled, or rather mishandled by these critics is so grossly unfair, so malicious, so unbelievably mean, as to become macabre to a high degree.

We shall let the critics speak for themselves. That great man of letters, Walter Bagehot, tells us, for instance, that Newton;

was in truth one of those men who seem intended to make excellence disagreeable. He was a converting engine. The whole of his enormous vigour of body — the whole steady intensity of a pushing, impelling, compelling, unoriginal mind, all the mental or corporeal exertion he could exact from the weak or elicit from the strong, were devoted to one sole purpose — the effectual impact of the Calvinistic tenets on the parishioners of Olney.

After misquoting words of Newton to the extent that he 'preached people mad', Bagehot goes on to write: 'No more dangerous adviser, if this world had been searched over, could have been found for Cowper'.

Not finding this abuse sufficient, Bagehot goes on to say how Newton loved to take hold of weaker brethren (thinking in particular of Cowper) and make sure that every iota of happiness was knocked out of their lives. But Bagehot is still not finished. He describes Cowper as 'a shrinking, a wounded and a tremulous mind' who was helpless against Newton's 'bold dogmatism', 'hard volition' and 'animal nerve'.

When we ransack the archives of our respectable newspapers and magazines for objective articles on Newton and Cowper over past years, we are disappointed. We come across description after description of a slave-driving Newton and a cringing slave, Cowper. Robert Lynd, writing in the London Mercury (II, 1920), tells us how Newton, 'who seems to have wielded the Gospel as fiercely as a slaver's whip' was largely responsible for Cowper's terrors. He describes Newton as a man of 'savage piety' who became 'Cowper's tyrant', suggesting that Cowper could only begin to 'breathe freely' when Newton finally left Olney for London some twelve years after their first meeting.

Turning to that century-old magazine Blackwoods (Aug., 1912), we read a similar tale. We find the author describing 'grim Newton' as 'a kind of Admiral Guinea'. He refers to 'the callousness of Newton's temper' towards Cowper, adding that Olney was 'infested' during Newton's stay in Olney 'by pietists of every complexion and every sect'.

Even the works of recognized scholars and academic 'experts' on Newton and Cowper tend to reflect the myth of a repressive Newton and a spineless Cowper. Adelaide E. Thein, who wrote a Ph.D. thesis on her low view of Newton, writes in the Philological Quarterly (21, 1942) of Newton's 'crass and uncompromising Calvinism', claiming that there is 'actual evidence' to prove that 'naive Newton's' influence on Cowper helped to drive him mad. One realizes on reading the article what a relative term 'actual evidence' is. It is almost amusing to note that Miss Thein, after arguing how hyper-Calvinistic and dogmatically narrow Newton was, actually quotes lines of Newton which would seem to prove the opposite:

Oh sinners, hear His gracious call, 
His mercy's door stands open wide!
He has enough to feed you all,
And none who comes shall be denied.

Without batting an eye-lid (we presume) Miss Thein tells us that this is a hymn and hymns do not count. As hymns only show 'expressions of sentiment' (sic), they cannot be used as a 'declaration of doctrine'. Declarations of doctrine are to be found in Newton's private statements and letters, Thein maintains, showing that Newton was dogmatically narrow-minded in matters of salvation.

It would be easy for us to say that all this negative criticism comes from the pens of the unregenerate and dismiss their views with a shake of the head. This is, however, most definitely not the case. Many of Newton's posthumous enemies have been men of the Church and Evangelicals. The image of Cowper amongst many biblical-minded writers is just as grotesque as amongst secular writers. It must be said objectively that though few secular writers would challenge the fact that Newton and Cowper were Evangelicals, this is often the case with the over-critical on our own side.

The editor of the once definitive Globe edition of Cowper, the Rev Wm. Benham, after testifying to the power of God to heal and cast out devils and after speaking about the infinite love of God goes on to say:

It became as clear to me as any demonstration could make it, that the Calvinistic doctrine and religious excitements threw an already trembling mind off its balance, and aggravated a malady which but for them might probably have been cured.

We may now guess where Benham lays the blame for this 'malady'. Firmly and squarely at Newton's feet! 'Newton' he tells us, forgetting all editorial restraint and objectivity, and pouring insult on Cowper, 'has created a Frankenstein' — which only goes to show how little Benham understood Newton and Cowper, or Mrs. Shelley's 'hero' for that matter.

Methodist biographers such as the author of Beauties of Cowper (1801) were quick to point out the 'irritating nature' of Newton's influence on Cowper and stress that Calvinistic, not Arminian thought was the source of Cowper's trouble. Calvinistic Evangelicals such as Greatheed had quite a tough task to persuade the more numerous Wesleyan Methodists that, 'The most happy season of Mr. C(owpers)'s life was during the first years of residence at Olney, which was greatly promoted by the uninter­rupted society of his pious and affectionate friend the Rev John Newton' (Memoirs, 1803). This Wesleyan bias is nowhere more pronounced than in Gilbert Thomas' William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century (1946), which is one of the very few published attempts to deal with the Newton-Cowper relationship against the background of the Evangelical Awakening. Refreshingly enough Thomas shows how Cowper was perfectly sane for the greater part of his life. He is also not quite so hard on Newton. Thomas, however, finds it 'absurd' to equate Calvinism with any form of Evangelicalism and goes on to argue that Cowper was really an Arminian at heart. If Cowper had known some Arminians in his London days, Thomas informs us, then he might have been able, like the Wesleys, to discard his chains. Oddly enough, not thinking that anybody could say he was a Calvinist and really believe it, Thomas almost reverses Thein's view of what is doctrine and what is sentiment and tells us that when Newton is speaking 'formally' he puts on a Calvinistic cloak, but when he speaks privately 'in his own very individual accent' we get the true Newton who is also really an Arminian at heart. Thomas puts Newton's 'formalistic' Calvinism down to George Whitefield's influence and quotes Wesley who said that although Newton held to predestination he yet had 'real Christian experience' as if the one factor normally cancels the other.

So much for the negative criticism both within and without Evangel­icalism. Now for the facts. First of all it must be firmly stated that Cowper had come through his conversion experience as a Calvinist and was firm in his mind about what the true gospel was some two years before meeting Newton. Cowper had received a thorough grounding in the Scriptures as a child and was brought up on John Bunyan's whole­some fare, Pilgrim's Progress. He had been conversant with very many Puritan authors since his early teens. There were many Evangelicals of the Calvinistic persuasion in Cowper's family as, for instance, his cousin, Martin Madan, who was a friend of Whitefield's and Newton's and had helped to lead Cowper to the Lord. Cowper's great command of the Scriptures surprised and impressed Newton and helped draw the two together.

It is not difficult to see how the myth that Newton forced Calvinism down Cowper's throat developed. Cowper's letters expressing strong religious views were suppressed by Cowper's legatee, and permission to publish them was refused; biographies of Cowper thus appeared without them. It was common knowledge that Newton was a Calvinist before he met Cowper so the conclusion was drawn (and embroidered upon) that Cowper became a Calvinist under Newton's strict and narrow influence. It was not until July, 1904, that some dozens of Cowper's early letters testifying to his faith were published through the auspices of the mag­azine Notes and Queries and it is true to say that Cowper letters are still continually being found. Now that Ryskamp and King have published all Cowper's extant letters to date, no one interested in Cowper has an excuse for not knowing the facts about the poet's faith.

Here is Cowper writing to his cousin, Lady Hesketh (12th July, 1765) telling her of his conversion from 'unpardoned guilt'.

It is called enthusiasm by many, but they forget this passage in St Paul, "We are saved by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God".

Cowper then goes on to argue how the heart is like a stone and there is no conviction until 'it pleases God to strike upon the rock, and melt it into a sense of its own corruption, and the necessity there for an atonement'.

Writing to Martin Madan, Cowper says:

I plead guilty to the doctrine of original corruption, derived to me from my great progenitor, for in my heart I feel the evidence of it, that will not be disputed. I rejoice in the doctrine of imputed righteousness, for without it, how should I be justified? My own righteousness is a rag, a feeble, defective attempt, insufficient of itself to obtain the pardon of the least of my offences, much more my justification from them all. My dear Martin, 'tis pride that makes these truths unpalatable, but pride has no business in the heart.

Writing to an evangelical aunt in 1767 Cowper apologizes for his previous lack of understanding of her faith and says:

Alas! How could I truly love a disciple of the Lord, while I was at enmity with the Master? How was it possible that one of the dear children of God should find a place in my unrenewed, unsanctified heart? I would not, neither need I, represent myself as worse than I was! I always respected you, but it was with a respect painful to myself. I had eyes to see the holiness and beauty of a Christian character, but neither a will to imitate it, nor a heart to be pleased with it. The light of the Father of lights, shining in His elect people, is too much for the feeble sight of a child of wrath, whose delight is to walk in darkness. Blessed be the God of my salvation, who in His due time, and in His own appointed way, has enabled me to love the brethren, and hereby given me evidence of my adoption into His blessed family!

These few excerpts serve to show how Calvinistic Cowper had believed the doctrines of reprobation and election before he came into contact with Newton. In fact, should one wish to obtain a good exposition of the five points of Calvinism one could do worse than read these earlier letters of William Cowper. Newton left Olney towards the end of 1779 and after his departure, we are told, Cowper breathed more freely and became more and more Arminian. That this is nonsense is shown by a letter written by Cowper in 1790 to a young relative, John Johnson, who was studying theology. The poet writes:

Let your Divinity, if I may advise, be the Divinity of the glorious Reformation. I mean in contra-distinction to Arminianism and all the isms that were ever broached in this world of error and ignorance. The Divinity of the Reformation is called Calvinism, but injuriously; it has been that of the Church of Christ in all ages; it is the Divinity of St Paul and of St Paul's Master who met him in his way to Damascus.

Another myth to be exploded is Newton's alleged savagery and bullying nature towards Cowper. If this had been so then Cowper would certainly not have written scores of letters to Newton thanking him for his great help in the past. Cowper could not walk by the Vicarage in Olney without regretting the loss of Newton and he found all Newton's successors sadly lacking in pastoral quality. He complained that they were like surgeons who used the knife too much and preached the good news in anger. Newton, on the other hand, Cowper tells us, used the poultice to heal, and preached good things in love. 'You were beloved at Olney', Cowper tells his friend, 'and if you preached to the Chickesaws and Chactaws would be equally beloved to them'. A decade after Newton's departure Cowper wrote to him saying:

You do justice to me and Mrs. Unwin when you assure yourself that to hear of your health will give us pleasure. I know not, in truth, whose health and well-being could give us more. The years that we have seen together will never be out of our remembrance, and so long as we remember them we must remember you with affection. In the pulpit and out of the pulpit you have labour'd in every possible way to serve us, and we must have a short memory indeed for the kindness of a friend, could we by any means become forgetful of yours.

This short quote, if nothing else, is sufficient to show that Cowper was certainly not aware of anything savage in Newton whom he called lovingly 'friend of my heart'. Nor was Cowper afraid to stand up to Newton on the very few occasions when they did not see quite eye to eye, as in the case of John William Fletcher. Newton was far more open towards Wesleyans than Cowper who could not stomach any theology which smacked of a denial of the doctrines of reprobation and imputed righteousness. Newton had recommended John William Fletcher to Cowper, who was shocked. Mrs. Unwin's son-in-law, the Rev Matthew Powley had reported that Fletcher was preaching 'Perfection' in Dewsbury and had told the people that 'He that Sinned was no Christian, that he himself did not Sin, Ergo had a right to that Appelation'. In the letter Cowper makes it quite clear that one should not open one's pulpit to a person so 'defective in self-knowledge, and so little acquainted with his own heart'. The poet goes on to say:

If I had not heard you yourself speak favourably of him, I should little scruple to say, that having spent much of his Life and exerted all his talents in the defence of Arminian errors, he is at last left to fall into an error more pernicious than Arminius is to be charged with, or the most ignorant of his disciples ... Mr. Wesley has also been very troublesome in the same place, and asserted in perfect harmony of sentiment with his brother Fletcher, that Mr. Whitefield disseminated more false doctrine in the nation, than he should ever be able to eradicate. Methinks they do not see through a glass darkly but for want of a glass, they see not at all.

Matthew Powley wrote a treatise against perfectionist views and turned to Cowper for advice on publication. Cowper reported the fact to Newton and asked for a second opinion. The result was that Cowper said the article should be published if a readership could be found; Newton advised against publication on the grounds that one should rather avoid controversy and said that Mr. Powley should go on 'speaking the Truth in love'. Cowper enclosed Newton's letter in his own to Powley. Incidents like this do not show a weak-willed Cowper in any way and certainly not a 'grim' Newton.

Another of many incidents which show that Newton preferred to dwell on the positive and not get mixed up in controversy was the occasion of the centenary celebrations in honour of the musician Handel. Both Newton and Cowper could appreciate good music and both men had a repertoire of favourite songs which stretched far beyond scriptural topics. Between them they also wrote many hundreds of hymns to God's praise. Thus both were very curious to know what was going on at St Paul's and Westminster Abbey and other churches up and down the country in regard to divine music during the celebrations and exchanged many letters on the subject. Newton wrote to Cowper about a visit to St Paul's saying how he could not wait for the 'musical happiness' to begin but when it began he could not wait for it to finish. Both men were obviously shocked at such a spectacle — Cowper called it a sacrilege — as it was obvious that Handel was being honoured and not God. Each reacted in his own personal way. Instead of openly denouncing the use of churches for musical concerts Newton, the minister, preached a long series of sermons on the texts used in Handel's Messiah to make sure that his people received the message which had been overtoned by the music and praise of Handel. Cowper, the poet, took up his pen and wrote, with a view to publication:

Man praises man. Desert in arts or arms
Wins public honour; ten thousand sit
Patiently present at a sacred song,
Commemoration-mad; content to hear
(Oh wonderful effect of music's pow'r!)
Messiah's eulogy, for Handel's sake.

Again such an incident sheds great light on the two characters but shows them in an entirely different light from that of the critics.

Newton, rather than use Cowper as a kind of non-paid junior curate or even lackey as many commentators would have us believe, had quite a different view of his great friend. 'The Lord who had brought us together', he tells us, 'so knit our hearts and affections that for nearly twelve years we were seldom separated for twelve hours at a time when we were awake and at home'. Then Newton goes on to say of Cowper what few commentators will believe, 'The first six (years) I passed in daily admiring and trying to imitate him'. Newton must have been a hypocrite indeed to have written this if he were guilty of half the inhumanities against Cowper that he is charged with. A quick perusal through Newton's and Cowper's Works will, however, soon prove to the reader that Newton's words are sincere and true. During these six years Newton looked upon Cowper for help, encouragement and advice in literary and theological matters besides being greatly impressed by Cowper's gentleman-like nature and earnestness in the faith. The six years following, however, show Newton as a tower of strength for Cowper who became increasingly ill. When Cowper was at his lowest physically and mentally he moved into the Vicarage and would be cared for by nobody but John and Mary Newton and Mrs. Unwin. Newton looked after Cowper for over a year under great difficulties, as Cowper at times was quite insane. To make matters worse, John Thornton, who financed Newton's ministry, urged him to get rid of Cowper and Mrs. Unwin at once, but Newton remained true to his friend until his health was again restored.

Even when Newton left Olney for London the two friends corres­ponded often. Cowper sent Newton bulbs, ducks, hens and hams and Newton replied with sugar, coconuts, fish and barrels of oysters. Cowper informed Newton jokingly that he would send him the hams as soon as the pig was ready to 'bequeath' them. Newton, on receiving two ducks wrote, 'Two ducks arriv'd last night, they were I doubt not acquaintances of yours, but being dead they could not tell us a word about you'. Cowper once wrote and told Newton a funny story about a runaway horse (not John Gilpin's) and the old sea-captain wrote back to say how he had laughed out loud. The two friends discussed gardening, liter­ature, the Classics and theological books in their correspondence. Cowper supplied Newton with titles such as Cardiphonia for his works and Newton helped Cowper edit his poetry. Again and again we find Cowper thanking Newton for his letters, especially for their 'mixture of sympathy and tender solicitude', confessing that they prove 'the faithfulness of (his) friendship'.

Once Cowper was put in the difficult position of defending Newton against his own cousin and ex-mentor, Martin Madan, who was then Chaplain of a hospital for women of the streets. Madan was so concerned for the welfare of these young women that he wrote a book pleading that Christian men should have several wives so as to stop prostitution. Women who had husbands to care for them would not go on the streets, Madan believed, thinking that he was arguing from Scripture. Newton was quick to reprove his old friend, but Madan reacted in very bad taste and was extremely personal. This was too much for Cowper who knew how deeply Newton loved his wife, so he took up his pen and wrote:

M. quarrels with N., for M. wrote a book
And N. did not like it, which M. could not brook,
So he call'd him a bigot, a wrangler, a monk,
With as many hard names as would line a good trunk,
And set up his back, and claw'd like a cat,
But N. liked it never the better for that.
Now N. had a wife, and he wanted but one,
Which stuck in M.'s stomach as cross as a bone.
It has always been reckon'd a just cause of strife
For a man to make free with another man's wife;
But the strife is the strongest that ever was known,
If a man must be scolded for loving his own.

One of the finest testimonies to John Newton and thus to Newton's friendship with Cowper is a poem written in 1784 on the margin of the Monthly Review. This work of Cowper's was found after his decease and not published until 1867. The Monthly Review had written a sharp attack on Newton's faith and personal integrity, calling his preaching 'cant'. Cowper, on reading the article, had spontaneously jotted down the following words;

These critics, who to faith no quarter grant,
But call it mere hypocrisy and cant
To make a just acknowledgment of praise,
And thanks to God for governing our ways
Approve Confucius more, and Zoroaster,
Than Christ's own servant, or that servant's Master.

Under the providence and patience of God, there are still critics in this world of ours, who do not even see through a glass darkly — they do not see at all. It is through studying great spiritual friendships such as that of Newton and Cowper that we learn to use enlightened eyes as Christ's servants and find fresh reasons for giving thanks to God for governing our ways.

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