John Newton lived a remarkable life, a life filled with Gospel themes of rebellion, redemption, revival and restoration. Most, if they know of Newton, know of him through his association with the famous hymn that bears his signature, Amazing Grace. But limiting Newton’s life to that single work is like limiting New York City to the Empire State Building. Great in its own right, but still so much more to see.
The book, Bitesize Biographies-John Newton, by Pastor John Crotts is a convenient, devotional biography of the great English hymn writer and pastor that sets out to give the reader a more accurate understanding of who Newton was, where he failed, and how our Lord harvested tremendous ministerial fruit from this man. The book begins by recounting the turmoil of his upbringing and subsequent debauchery as a sailor on the high seas. He was insubordinate, mean-spirited, and altogether a burden on the captains he sailed with, leading him to be in a constant state of flux regarding his employment. The book also deals with his captivity in Africa, his never-ending love for a young lady, Polly, and finally his conversion to Christ. The middle of the book shares the joys of ministry that Newton experienced along side some giants of the faith in Carey, Fuller, and of course, Wilberforce. I have long found his very special relationship with William Cowper to be inspiring and moving, one that was bathed in a spirit of grace and patience. Today’s church has much to learn from Newton in how he so gently handled the issue of mental illness, suicide, and depression. The final section of the book, by far the best section, contains expositions by Crotts of ‘Amazing Grace’ and some of the letters that Newton penned in his life.
The book is not without issue however. While I found the subject matter intriguing, I struggled to get past the prose. Crotts writes this book more like a very lengthy blog entry than like a well-researched biography. He does not use traditional paragraph formatting, but chose to separate his paragraphs with spaces, much like this review. And his use of exclamation points borders on being amatuer! The narrative section of the book is filled with them! I found them to be distracting and frustrating! Finally, he seems fixated on trying to determine the precise point of Newton’s conversion, only to state that it is impossible to truly know when Newton did finally respond to the Gospel. Then why ask so many times? The reader is left to believe that Newton really only turned to Christ after his outward struggles with sin had subsided. That’s not the Gospel, nor is it what I believe that Crotts was intending, but his repeated attempts to answer the question regarding Newton’s regeneration leaves the reader wondering if regeneration and a fierce struggle with sin can’t in some cases exist simultaneously. My fear is that those mature in their walk with Christ will find his prose distracting and those immature in their walk will find his obsession with the moment of Newton’s regeneration confusing. And for those two reasons, I would struggle to recommend this work. By all means, the body of Christ will be blessed to study the fascinating life of John Newton, but perhaps a look at other works would bear more fruit.