September 1, 2010 Volume 24, Number 09
Newton letter collection was years in making
By David Daniels | ChristianWeek Columnist
Hand-written, multiple-page letters have been sent packing with the arrival of e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and texting. Speed and efficiency is the currency of the day. Few could be bothered to conclude a letter in the following manner: "I commend you cordially to His grace and blessing, and remain your sincerely and obliged brother."
In our world of Notebooks and Smartphones, the conclusion would more likely read "God bless. TTYL" (talk to you later), or simply "L8R" (later).
There was a time when letters read more like meticulously constructed essays. Such is often the case with the 83 letters published in Wise Counsel: John Newton's Letters to John Ryland Jr. (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), edited by Grant Gordon.
Along with serving 18 years as a Fellowship Baptist pastor, directing the Supervised Ministries program at Tyndale Seminary (Toronto), lecturing in Baptist history and providing transitional pastoral ministry, Gordon has invested 20 years researching the life and writings of John Newton, giving Gordon excellent credentials for a work of this kind.
Though John Newton (1725-1807), an Anglican clergyman, was more than 25 years older than Baptist pastor John Ryland Jr. (1753-1825), they formed an intimate friendship that lasted over three decades. The letters contained in Wise Counsel demonstrate the immeasurable benefit of a younger minister having an older, seasoned servant of God for a mentor and counsellor.
Gordon's overview of the letters reveals the long hard work involved in bringing this collection to the public's attention. Years of searching in libraries and archives far and near produced letters and volumes previously unknown to researchers, and for this we must be grateful for Gordon's diligence. All but 10 of the letters in this book have languished in obscurity until now.
Following his overview of the letters, Gordon comments on the early years of Newton and Ryland, providing context for the letters that are presented in this collection. Readers will also appreciate the manner in which the author provides background and context for each letter as it is introduced.
A wide variety of topics and themes are covered in these letters. For example, Newton provides counsel in such matters as combating spiritual pride, contemplating marriage, dealing with personal temptation, misusing Scripture to prove a point, providing pastoral care to the unrepentant and dealing with besetting sins, to name just a few.
Additionally, along with the expected spiritual counsel provided Ryland, Newton expresses views on a broad array of important issues of his day: theological controversies such as Calvinism and Arminianism; the pros and cons of receiving the smallpox vaccination; the American Revolution, and the approach to ministry of the New England divines (e.g. Jonathan Edwards, et. al.). Other well-known contemporaries of Newton also appear in the letters.
An example of Newton's wise counsel to this young pastor can be seen in Letter Five (April, 1773), one of two Gordon says shows Newton at his finest. It appears Ryland has been experiencing a significant measure of spiritual struggle, and he seeks Newton's counsel.
Newton writes: "It belongs to your calling of God as a minister, that you should have a taste of the various spiritual trials which are incident to the Lord's people, that thereby you may possess the tongue of the learned, and know how to speak a word in season to them that are weary; and it is likewise needful to keep you perpetually attentive to that important admonition: 'Without me ye can do nothing'" (pp.34-35).
No hint here that the answer is to ignore the struggle, or to consider leaving pastoral ministry for something less difficult. Rather, Newton enables Ryland to squarely face his struggles, realizing that a sovereign God will use those very things to mold him into a better minister of the gospel.
When I first learned of this book, I inquired about submitting a review to several publications. One editor expressed the view that the audience for a book of this kind would be too limited for their publicationa major Christian publication aimed at Christian leaders and an informed laity.
Having read the book, and planning to read it again, I have found a goldmine of great value to contemporary Christians. Aside from the obvious illustration of how older, mature believers can encourage younger ones, there is here a priceless lesson in how pastors, and ordinary Christians, can counsel and encourage any among whom they minister.
This volume contains history of people and events of an earlier time, immersed in words of wise spiritual counsel, all rooted in eternal biblical truth. Spiritually thirsty Christians will find true refreshment in these pages.
David Daniels is a freelance writer and reviewer serving as Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Richmond Hill, Ontario.