As we continued our “Looking for Wilberforce” trip, we left Oxford the next morning and drove 50 miles north to Olney. This lovely little English town was, for 16 years (1764-79), the home of John Newton. Newton is best known in history as the writer of what is probably the most beloved hymn in the English-speaking world, “Amazing Grace.”
The former captain of a slave ship, Newton later become one of the most influential spiritual leaders of his day. Metaxas describes Newton as a defining influence in the life of William Wilberforce, first when Wilberforce was a child and even more significantly during what Wilberforce would call “the great change.”
Newton ministered for the parish church in Olney from 1764 until 1779. It was during this time that he became good friends with Wilberforce’s uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce, who lived near London. Following the death of Wilberforce’s father and the illness of his mother, he went to live with his “Uncle William” and “Aunt Hannah” in Wimbledon. It was here that young Wilberforce became acquainted with some of the greatest and most devout spiritual leaders of his day. Among them was the former-slaver-turned-minister Newton, who was in his 40s during the time that Wilberforce lived with his aunt and uncle between the ages of 9 and 12. Metaxas speculates, “It was he who would have given little Wilberforce his first knowledge of slavery” (p. 7).
The greatest impact that Newton seems to have had on Wilberforce happened many years later. By that time, Newton had left Olney and had moved to London to work with the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth. 1775 was the year of what Wilberforce came to call “the great change.” It was the year when he transformed from a self-indulgent son of privilege into a serious disciple of Jesus, intent on giving his life to the will of God. Metaxas chronicles this year of spiritual crisis and relates the details of a transformative meeting between the 26-year-old Wilberforce and the 60-year-old Newton on Dec. 7, 1785.
Wilberforce must have poured out his heart now to the one person who might understand his anguish and his difficult choices. But as so often is the case, Wilberforce discovered what he had so terribly feared as a chimera, nothing as bad as he had thought. Newton didn’t tell him what he had expected — that to follow God he would have to leave politics. On the contrary, Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay where he was, saying that God could use him there. (Metaxas, p. 59)
The words “God could use him there [Parliament[” set the course for the remainder of the life of Wilberforce. The old slave ship captain gave wise counsel to the distressed young politician that day, and the story of the fight against the British slave trade was forever changed.
I’ve long been thankful for Newton because of the power that the words to “Amazing Grace” have had on my own life. But during our time in Olney, my gratitude had a different focus. On that day, I was most grateful for the counsel, encouragement, comfort and direction that he gave to Wilberforce. He called him to remain in Parliament and engage the great struggles of his day, and he assured him that “God could use him there.” Thank you, John Newton!
Final stop: Kingston upon Hull
August 7, 2016