I was once asked by a friend for the name of my favourite old time preacher. My answer seemed to come as a shock, and his reaction shocked me a little. Perhaps he was expecting me to say Jonathon Edwards, or whoever his particular favourite is. Instead I had chosen a rough seaman with a disgraceful history.
The story that follows gives a very brief history of this man’s life. You too might wonder why I chose him.
Bedlam was an asylum for the mentally ill and John’s adopted daughter, who was actually his niece, spent some time locked away there.
As someone who has suffered from depression I know the value of people like John. People who let you know they are there, who make the effort to make you laugh and show kindness. These people point the way out of the darkness. They give you something to hold onto.
Thank God, I have beaten depression. I looked it in the face and overcame its hold on my life, with the help of God, and people like John. This is the story:
Wave a White Handkerchief
John, like his father before him, was a merchant seaman: a dangerous occupation in which he had to contend with rough seas, rough workmates and tough, ruthless masters. He had many experiences at sea: once he’d been offered a command, but preferred to remain as first mate on a ship that ran a slave trade route out of Africa.
He’d been seventeen when he fell in love with Mary; her pretty dark hair and happy, smiling face captivated him. There were many sad, drawn out partings when he was called away again to the ships and the life of an English sailor. Mary was only fourteen when they first met, and it turned out to be a long courtship for the young sweethearts, but they eventually married. It was the image of Mary’s face that kept John living in hope when in the midst of fearful storms with the threat of shipwreck, and his suffering under the abuse of his masters.
There was no patter of little feet running to greet John when he arrived at their modest thatched cottage on his return from the sea. No chubby arms to hug his neck and kiss his face: John and Mary had no children of their own. They did however adopt two orphaned nieces, one of whom died while still a child. The other, Eliza Catlett survived and John and Mary loved her and brought her up as their own.
When Mary died John was grief stricken. They had been married forty years, and he had loved her with the deepest devotion throughout their time together, and beyond.
Eliza remained in the family home and became John’s housekeeper. Sadly she suffered health problems and was admitted to hospital, her condition being described as melancholia, possibly the result of the death of Mary and the subsequent responsibility of running the household, now a large two story brick dwelling.
By this time John was old and losing his eyesight, but he never failed to walk every day to the street corner opposite Eliza’s room at Bedlam, where he would wait until she waved her white handkerchief from her window. On her recovery Eliza returned home where she continued to live with and care for her father. Even after her marriage to the optometrist, Mr Smith, the couple lived in the family home.
John had long since renounced his involvement in slavery. With deep remorse for his misdeeds during that period of his life, he repented and asked for forgiveness. He later became an advisor to and supporter of the abolitionist, William Wilberforce.
John was ordained an Anglican clergyman at the age of thirty nine. He was a prolific writer, though not as polished as his friend William Cowper, and he left a legacy to the world in the form of several important published works and many hymns, the most loved being Amazing Grace.
John Newton 1725 – 1807
© 2011 Shirley Chalmers