May 13, 2011 by Tony Reinke
John Newton went to prison in the fall of 1775. It wasn’t exactly a prison, more of a correctional institution for thieves and prostitutes. And he wasn’t sent there by force, he entered the facility voluntarily as a 50-year-old pastor.
The correctional facility in London was known as Westminster Bridewell. The inmates in the facility were subjected to hard labor and, in the spirit of behavior reform, to physical lashings for disobedience. Those floggings (of both men and women) were meted out in public and in full view of the good citizens of London. The social distance between the law-abiding citizens and the law-breaking miscreants was as obvious as the three-story prison walls.
Into Bridewell Newton entered with a Bible and a very personal story of God’s saving grace. He recounted his visit in a letter to a friend:
You would have liked to have been with me last Wednesday. I preached at Westminster Bridewell. It is a prison and house of correction. The bulk of my congregation were housebreakers [burglars], highwaymen [a highway robber on horseback], pickpockets, and poor unhappy women, such as infest the streets of this city, sunk in sin, and lost to shame [prostitutes]. I had a hundred or more of these before me.
I preached from 1 Timothy 1:15 [“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (KJV)]. I began with telling them my own story. This gained their attention more than I expected. I spoke to them near an hour and a half.
I shed many tears myself, and saw some of them shed tears likewise.
Ah! had you seen their present condition, and could you hear the history of some of them, it would make you sing, “O to grace how great a debtor!”
By nature they were no worse than the most sober and modest people; and there was doubtless a time when many of them little thought what they should live to do and suffer. I might have been, like them, in chains, and one of them have come to preach to me, had the Lord so pleased.*
The experience of prison life was striking to Newton. Given his pre-conversion life, it was not difficult for Newton to imagine a reversal of roles—himself wearing the chains, bearing public floggings, and needing another to proclaim to him the good news of the gospel.
By all accounts, the miscreants Newton addressed in the correctional facility were sinners. And they knew it. And the citizens of London knew it. Likely the surprise was in seeing a 50-year-old pastor walk into the prison to candidly share the story of his own sinfully wretched background.
In his visit two important points are clear.
First, Newton believed that the grace of God could reach anyone, no matter how dark or prevailing the sin.
Second, Newton found in 1 Timothy 1:15 a natural transition from his own life of sin to Paul’s claim of being the chief of sinners. Newton could make such a smooth transition because he genuinely believed that he was the worst sinner he knew—even in a room where he found himself encircled by 100 thieves and prostitutes.**
Tony Reinke serves as the editorial and research assistant to C.J. Mahaney. Reading Newton’s Mail is a series of blog posts reflecting on various published letters written by John Newton (1725–1807), the onetime captain of a slave trading ship—a self-described apostate, blasphemer, and infidel, who was eventually converted by grace. Newton is most famous for authoring the hymn “Amazing Grace,” or maybe for helping William Wilberforce put an end to the African slave trade in Britain. Less legendarily, Newton faithfully pastored two churches for 43 years, a fruitful period of his life when a majority of his letters were written. Reading Newton’s Mail is published on Fridays here on the Cheap Seats blog.
* John Newton, The Works of John Newton (London: 1820), 2:150.
** Newton explicitly refers to himself as the “chief of sinners” at several places in his writings (see for example his Works, 2:246, 5:570, and 6:58). And at one point in a sermon he explains the rationale behind his conviction: “It is probable, that all who are convinced and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, having a clearer knowledge of the nature, number, and aggravation of their own sins, than they can possibly have of those of any other person, account themselves among the chief of sinners, though many of them may have been preserved from gross enormities” (5:173).