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David Bebbington


Newton's Laws

The amazing balance of enlightened rationalism and Puritan piety in the evangelicalism of John Newton.

The railway journey from London to Edinburgh is, by British standards, a long one. Normally lasting about five hours, it can sometimes be drawn out to six or seven if there are problems. On a recent occasion when I was using this service, its start was delayed by half an hour at the London terminus, and almost as soon as the passengers were breathing a sigh of relief that the coaches were actually on their way, the train once more ground to a halt. After a while the intercom seemed to offer the unlikely explanation that there was "a fertility" on the line; and eventually we decoded the accent to mean that there had been a fatality, sadly a suicide, just ahead of us. That took two hours to investigate. There were subsequent engineering works that dictated further postponement of progress. So it turned out to be the longest travel time to Edinburgh I have ever suffered.

The experience, however, was bearable because of a book. Normally I try to read part of a volume on that journey, often turning to a lighter item halfway to Edinburgh. But that day my attention was grasped by a single work for the whole period. It was a study of the English evangelical John Newton by Bruce Hindmarsh, a young Canadian scholar. It is a substantial volume, and it is as thoroughly academic as one would expect of the Clarendon Press. But it is clear, attractively written, and sharply focused on what is important about Newton. It is not a biography but an analysis of what its subject reveals about the broad sweep of evangelical history in the later eighteenth century. It riveted my eye for the full eight or nine hours.

Newton's life has obvious appeal. A profligate sea captain, he commanded several slavers across the middle passage from Africa to America, but then, in a raging storm, received an intimation of the displeasure of God that began a decisive process of conversion. That experience forged the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace." It is not, however, the dramatic adventures of Newton's ...

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