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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Hindmarsh, D. Bruce


John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition. Between the Conversions of Wesley and Wilberforce.


Grand Rapids-Cambridge: Eerdmans 2001. XVII, 366 S. m. 1 Abb. gr.8. Kart. US$ 30,00. ISBN 0-8028-4741-2.


Keith Robbins

Some readers may already be familiar with this fine book. It was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1996 but is now out of print. It is now published, largely unemended, in a paperback edition at a somewhat more manageable price. Although the author, a Canadian scholar, suspects that John Newton (1725-1807) is now largely forgotten, even amongst those today, who could be deemed his evangelical descendants, his hymn Amazing Grace is nevertheless still sung throughout the English-speaking world, even in contexts which are rather secular. How it is that a hymn written by an eighteenth-century English converted slave-trader can find a niche in the pop charts of the contemporary world is not something which the author directly addresses, though he acknowledges the fact. If there are chart-followers who wish to know more about an extraordinary life they could not do better than read this book, and scholars certainly should. Of course, this is not the first life to be attempted. Over many generations, the narrative of Newton's remarkable maritime experiences and crisis conversion had been frequently repeated in evangelical circles. This book, in the words of the author, seeks to save Newton from evangelical hagiography and from academic neglect. It does so by placing his life and work in the widest possible context. He can be seen as a key figure in English evangelical life from the late 1730s to the 1790s. Therefore, while his life-story has intrinsic interest in itself, it also illuminates the cross-currents in the English evangelical tradition in the eighteenth century.

The author has been diligent in tracking down manuscript material in England and the United States and has been able to write a study which shows both a literary sensitivity in analysing the form and structure of Newton's own writings and a keen historical awareness of their intellectual, cultural and social context. It is not, as Hindmarsh puts it, that Newton was an original theologian like Jonathan Edwards, spectacular preacher like George Whitefield, or theological synthesizer and organizational leader like John Wesley. He was, rather, a broker of consensus whose manner of theological formulation and personal spirituality enabled him to straddle various camps. Wesley himself described Newton as a healer of breaches who could bring together the children of God who were needlessly divided from each other. He sought consensus whenever he could. His evangelicalism was not something which could only issue in one particular form of ecclesiastical polity or one view on the relations between Church and State or one opinion on the administration and efficacy of the sacraments. Such open-mindedness, of course, was seen by some as little more than latitudinarianism. In theology, too, he tried to steer a course between high Calvinism and Arminianism and his familiarity with Dissent enabled him, though (eventually) ordained in the Established Church, to draw upon a long tradition of Reformation and Puritan theology. His Calvinism, however, did not find expression in systematic treatises but rather in biographies, sermons, letters and hymnody. Hindmarsh reaches these conclusions after detailed analyses of all of these types of material. However, the book gains enormously from the extent to which it is not simply a sophisticated piece of intellectual history. The author has been at great pains to see Newton at work as a pastor in Olney (Buckinghamshire) 1764-80 and then at St. Mary Woolnooth in London. These contexts were very different and the author revealingly explains how and why this was so. Naturally, Newton did not function in a social vacuum and had to cope with sometimes conflicting pressures in a hierarchical society. In a small community, too, cross-overs between Church and Chapel (in both directions) could cause tension notwithstanding the generally good relations. And, even for Newton, there were limits on what prerogatives lay people gave themselves. London brought him into a different social world. Towards the end of his life, lived as it had been in very varied locations, he reiterated his central conviction: if a man was born again, hated sin and depended upon the Saviour for life and grace, that was all that mattered. He cared not whether a man was an Arminian or a Calvinist. This illuminating study has comprehensively shown how it was, and with what consequence, that he came to this conviction.