On a cold December night in 1785, a young, fidgety man loitered outside a London clergyman's house in Charles Square, Hoxton. Passersby gave him little notice, but the rich, dashing, and well-connected William Wilberforce took great care that no one would recognize him here. For this was the home of John Newton—the man slandered in some quarters as an "enthusiast"—and hardly fit company for a promising young Member of Parliament.

But "enthusiast" or no, Newton was the man Wilberforce wanted to see. As a boy of eight years, he'd sat at the feet of the fascinating sea-captain, drinking in his colorful stories, jokes, songs—and perhaps most importantly, lessons of faith. Yet Wilberforce's mother disliked Newton's "methodism" and forbade her son to visit Newton in Olney. Newton feared he'd lost the boy. He wrote to his poet friend William Cowper that religious sentiments in Wilberforce "seem now entirely worn off, not a trace left behind."

Now, in a moment of spiritual crisis, wondering whether his reborn faith in God required him to leave politics, Wilberforce knew who could help him most. Rounding the corner for the second time, he mustered his courage and strode to the front door to call on his old friend.

For all his hesitation, Wilberforce had good reason to confide in John Newton. A man both experienced in the world and now a minister of the gospel, Newton stood uniquely poised to advise men like Wilberforce. He knew how to relate to and counsel many people, including politicians, clergy, middle-class bourgeoisie, and country artisans. How did Newton acquire such influence and ability? And what distinguished him as a "director of souls?"

Newton understood the importance of spiritual accountability and friendship. Early in his Christian life, he'd enjoyed the encouragement of men like Captain Alexander Clunie, who reinforced his newfound belief in Christ and connected him to other evangelical Christians in London.

In Liverpool, during his seven frustrating years of striving toward ordination, Newton thrived in the company of Calvinist Baptists and other Dissenters, and organized a regular Sunday evening meeting for a few select friends to discuss spiritual matters. He titled his first literary venture Thoughts on Religious Associations.

Opportunities for spiritual counsel abounded in his parish at Olney. During the 1760s and 1770s, he hosted a continual stream of students, laymen, and clergy from surrounding areas eager for spiritual conversation. Newton traveled extensively as well, once making a three-month 650-mile circular tour preaching for old friends in Yorkshire and the West Midlands.

When he couldn't travel to visit friends, Newton wrote letters instead. He wrote with personal warmth, often addressing specific issues in friends' lives and sharing tidbits from his own life as well.

His thought-provoking letters advised friends on matters ranging from vocation to marriage to death. Occasionally he would address theological issues, particularly the Calvinist-Arminian controversy then troubling evangelical churches. These were often prompted by questions correspondents struggled with. Though himself a moderate Calvinist, he tried, as he once said, to "keep all shibboleths, and forms and terms of distinction out of sight, as we keep knives and razors out of the way of children," opting rather to "talk a good deal about Christ."

In the 1790s, Newton was at any one time working from a stack of 50 or 60 unanswered letters, spending hours each week at his desk. The postal system at the time expected recipients of letters to pay the postage. Newton's friends prized his advice highly. Many of his letters—in fact, over 500 of them—were published for a wider audience, particularly in his 1780 book Cardiphonia, or The Utterance of the Heart (the title was suggested by his friend, the poet William Cowper).

Cardiphonia did much to establish Newton's reputation as the "spiritual director" of England's evangelical community. Its letters date from his curacy at Olney (1764-1780), beginning with 26 to a nobleman, Lord Dartmouth—Newton's ecclesiastical patron and secretary of the American colonies—and finishing with 23 to other friends, many of them clergy.

In Cardiphonia, Newton's counsel consistently returns to the importance of experiencing Jesus over acquiring mere theological knowledge.

"It is to be lamented," wrote Newton to Lord Dartmouth, "that an increase of knowledge … should be so generally attended with a decline of fervor."

To John Ryland, Jr., a young family friend just embarking on a ministerial career, Newton wrote, "I desire to grow in knowledge, but I want nothing which bears that name, that has not a direct tendency to make sin more hateful [and] Jesus more precious to my soul."

Newton worried especially that the fashionable Deism then popular in the universities was leading young men astray, and that Christianity was becoming more a religion of the head than of the heart.

Battling sin and spiritual dullness

The power of sin and the believer's struggle with it permeates much of Newton's thought. A moderate Calvinist, Newton frequently sorrowed over his sinful state and his spiritual dullness.

In a letter to his friend J. Foster Barham, he notes that early in his Christian walk, he imagined himself growing in sanctification, attaining "everything which I then comprised in my idea of a saint. … But alas! these, my golden expectations, have been like South Sea dreams; I have lived hitherto a poor sinner, and I believe I shall die one." Yet, Newton points out, "I have every reason to be thankful … if I shall sink yet more in my own esteem, and He will be pleased to rise still more glorious to my eyes."

Newton also happily gave counsel on personal matters. He advised John Ryland, Jr., then contemplating marriage and starting a family, to "think of money likewise." He wrote, "though the love of money be a great evil, money itself, obtained in a fair and honorable way, is desirable upon many accounts. … Meat, clothes, fire, and books cannot easily be had without it."

He also gave his opinion on the controversial and still risky smallpox vaccine, siding with those who "neither run intentionally into the way of the small-pox, nor run out of the way, but leave it simply with the Lord."

As curate, Newton spent hours with the sick, and his letters frequently comment on the courage (or fear) of those facing death. As physicians specialize in medicine, Newton wrote to Lord Dartmouth, so "anatomy is my favorite branch—I mean the study of the human heart."

To those who harbor grave doubts about faith and God, "I know no better corroborating evidence for the relief of the mind under such assaults than the testimony of dying persons, especially of such as have lived outside the noise of controversy."

Newton goes on to describe one such woman, who lived out her days in relative confinement, knowing little of the world around her but living soberly, practicing common sense, and reading her Bible regularly.

An elite field of ministry

In 1780, Newton left Olney for London, serving as rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, church to a prestigious parish. Joining a strong company of evangelical preachers in that city, Newton soon exerted a tremendous amount of influence among clergy and politicians.

"My connections have enlarged," he wrote, "my name is spread." He received visitors twice a week at his home, and he founded the Eclectic Society, a like-minded group of clergy, to discuss the issues of the day.

He also offered spiritual counsel to such wealthy individuals as the Countess of Huntingdon (who in turn arranged opportunities for Newton to speak to the aristocracy) and William Wilberforce.

The proof of Newton's high talent and deep labor as a spiritual director may be seen in the lives of the men and women he molded for the kingdom of Christ.

In 1786, Newton wrote of Wilberforce, "I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible."

To Newton's credit as a spiritual counselor and friend, few politicians have ever done so much as Wilberforce for the cause of Christ or the church.

Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator of Christian History.

A Believer's Progress

In three short letters, Newton mapped out what he saw as the Christian's typical progress from conversion to maturity.

In the summer of 1772, the Gospel Magazine published three letters written by Newton under the pen name "Omicron." In these letters, he answers a question put to him by his friend John Thornton: How does divine grace typically progress in a believer? In answer, Newton turns to Mark 4:28—"First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear"—and describes the Christian's progression from desire to conflict to contemplation. He admits that not all believers have the same experience, but that one ought to be able to discern a pattern nonetheless. The pattern to some degree parallels the ascetic Catholic theology dividing the spiritual life into the "beginner," "proficient," and "perfect."

Desire: The believer in this stage resembles a child, genuine in his zeal for Christ but susceptible to falling away when troubles come or he fails and sins. Still weak in his faith, he doubts the security of his salvation and fears the wrath of an angry God. Yet God gives him grace to fight against sin, and with time he leaves behind the spiritual milk for meat.

Conflict: In this stage, the believer enters manhood, though still young and untried. His trials are sharper and more difficult, and through spiritual warfare, this Christian comes to know the deceitfulness of his own heart-and consequently, prizes the greater mercy of Christ. (Newton felt that even as a renowned minister, he himself was in this stage: he pointed to his continued "stupidity, ingratitude, impatience, and rebellion.")

Contemplation: Having experienced the grace of God through trials and failure, the believer at this stage enters what Newton calls fatherhood. Here, the Christian no longer trusts his own heart, but dwells more fully upon the redeeming love and glory of God. His thoughts bear fruit among his friends and acquaintances, and he's marked by his humility of spirit and his longing for complete union with God in heaven.

—Steven Gertz