Reading John Newton’s Letters

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Since completing my book-length synthesis of the letters of John Newton, I find myself often asked: Where should I begin, if I want to read Newton for myself?

I love this question, so let me first affirm it. Yes! You should read Newton for yourself. In his letters, you will find a lifetime of careful counsel to feed your soul and direct your steps. Newton was a brilliant pastor. He wrote sermons, he wrote hymns (like Amazing Grace), but he also wrote many pastoral letters. John Newton was convinced that his letters were his greatest contribution to the church. I agree.

Those letters are also some of the easiest writings from the eighteenth century to read and comprehend. But they are not superficial. Tim Keller once told me Newton’s letters “blaze with glory.” He calls those letters “pure gold.” Yes, exactly, the letters are full of gold, but like physical gold, it is not easy for readers to find all the gold in one place. This is my attempt to map you to the mines.

The Works of John Newton

Apart from my Bible, I have not re-read any other book more frequently than John Newton’s 6-volume works, originally published in 1820.

Fittingly, in content, the 3,790-pages work out to be 50-percent letters to his friends, family, and inquirers:

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That’s a lot of letters. In fact, this is the best way to get your hands on many of Newton’s letters at once.

Even better, the 6-volume set was very recently re-typeset and republished by the Banner of Truth into a tighter and slightly cheaper 4-volume edition. It’s all the content, collected in a beautiful cloth binding for $120.

To show the two different editions, here’s a favorite Newton quote printed in each. The older edition (1820/1985) is on the top, and the newer version (1839/2015) is on the bottom.

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Additionally, the new re-tyepset edition offers some very handy features for readers. The names of the recipients of Newton’s letters, originally cryptically redacted, have been restored. And the editor has added Newton’s short autobiography to the collection, which is a very nice value-add.

A couple of readers have asked: If they own the 6-volume works, should they also purchase the new 4-volume collection? My short answer is no. But in either case, Banner of Truth, who first published Newton’s 6-volume works in 1985, has done a great service to the church with this newly re-typeset replacement. For serious readers of Newton’s letters, the Works is a must-own resource.

What Works for You?

But there remain a few more buying options.

$140: You can buy the Banner’s new 4-volume retypeset edition of the works, with autobiography, in beautiful cloth.

$130: You can buy a digitized and paginated version of the original 6-volume works via Logos Bible software.

$60–80: You can buy Banner’s 4-volume retypeset edition as a Kindle ebook (ISBN: 9781848716414). Forthcoming. This price has not been finalized.

Free: You can download and read the 6-volume works of Newton online as free PDFs through these links:

Newton’s Other Works

Okay, now here’s where it starts to get complicated and the mines start getting smaller and more remote.

For readers especially interested in Newton’s letters, we have covered only a fraction of what has been published. Many other volumes of published letters are found outside the 4/6-volume edition, mostly in old and rare volumes of collected letters of Newton’s correspondences. These include letters to specific family and friends with the last names of Barlass, Bull, Campbell, Clunie, Coffin, Dartmouth, Dawson, Jay, Jones, More, Palmer, Scott, Taylor, and Wilberforce. And many of these individual letters — and many of Newton’s very best letters, in my opinion — are found in these random volumes (and not in the works).

Added to these titles, two diligent editors have recently transcribed Newton’s letters to Ryland and Thornton (forthcoming).

So you can spend quite a lot of time gathering up hundreds of excellent letters not found in Newton’s works, and many are available online for free download in Google books and the digital archive.

Best Single-Volume Collections

There is a way through all the complexity.

If you want to start small, here are my favorite single-volume collections of letters to consider first as small steps in building your John Newton letter library. Most of the letters in these free PDFs are not found in the collected works:

Overwhelmed yet?

In sum, if you want to read all the published letters of Newton, it is both possible and also complicated. If you are looking for a fun historic adventure, collecting and enjoying Newton’s letters would be a venture to keep you busy for years.

I certainly enjoyed every bit of the chase to find all of Newton’s published letters. The search took me all over the world and introduced me to many new friends and fellow admirers of Newton’s letters. With their help I collected all of Newton’s published letters, studied them closely, and then wrote a synthesis of all of Newton’s best pastoral counsel, collected all in one place, which I wrote into my new book: Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (Crossway).

I hope my book is a helpful introduction to the mind and heart of John Newton. As Sinclair Ferguson kindly said of my book, “Tony has lovingly distilled the essence of Newton for us. Newton on the Christian Life is a taste of spiritual manna that will make us want to read the letters of Newton for ourselves.”

That is my earnest prayer and hope.

6 thoughts on “Reading John Newton’s Letters

  1. Tony, thanks so much for this!

    If I have the first recommendation for single volume letters (the Josiah Bull volume that Banner reprinted in 2007) already, how many of those letters are included in the new 4 Volume Works from Banner?

    I was looking at buying the new edition of Newton’s works for the letters, but didn’t know whether many of those I have read in this one volume collection are in the four volume collection…is there still lots of new stuff to read if I bought the four volume??

    Many thanks Brother!

  2. Hey Tony (apologies if this comment appears twice, not sure if my phone sent it!)

    Thanks so much for this helpful overview.

    I had a question regarding the new 4-volume works: I already have the single volume collection of letters that Banner of Truth reprinted (2007), I’m wanting to buy the new 4-volume set for Christmas mainly for the letters, but wondered how much of what I’ve already read in the one volume collection appears in the 4-volume works?

    Would there be lots of new letters to read if I purchased the 4-volume?

    Many thanks brother!

  3. Tony,

    Given your labours over Newton’s life and thought, I was wondering: I’ve heard Piper talk about the moment that Dan Fuller told him to pick one theologian and spend the rest of his life trying to understand their thought and theology etc. (Piper obviously chose Edwards!)

    I was wondering, whether you thought Newton might be a good choice for doing something similar? I know most people might pick an Edwards or an Owen type thinker, but Newton just oozes pastoral wisdom!

    Anyway, I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts on this and maybe if you had some suggestions as to a place to begin to start a life-long study of Newton…

    Thanks in advance,

    Blessings

  4. Newton would be an amazing pick for anyone in pastoral ministry. I tend to think the depth of his wisdom, however, can be gleaned from 3–6 years of close reading. He is not as profound or as deep of a thinker to warrant a lifelong study. And perhaps nobody really is. I would encourage you to study Newton for a few year and then perhaps transition to another thinker. I think 5 years with one thinker is time enough, but that’s just me. The single lifelong choice has never been my style. Take up and read! Blessings in Christ.

  5. Yes there are many letters you don’t have. Nobody has gone through to make the overlap obvious, but between the works you mention there is minimal overlap. I’d own both.

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