“Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr.”
Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. edited by Grant Gordon
Banner of Truth, 2009 (428pp, hbk)
Almost every young minister of the gospel could do with a Newton. They may not always realise that they need a Newton, but they probably do. To be blunt, they may not always want a Newton; those are the times when they need one most.
In Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., edited by Grant Gordon, young preachers and pastors at least get the benefit of peering over the shoulders of a Newton as he writes to his young friend, John Ryland Jr.. Thanks to the editorial comments, we also get at least a brief glimpse over the shoulder of Ryland as he reads and ponders those letters.
The friendship between Newton and Ryland spanned four decades and crossed the twenty-five years that divided them in age. They first met in 1768 when Ryland was only fifteen and Newton was forty-three. The first letter in this volume was written in 1771 and the last in 1803. Both the length of correspondence and the increasing range of topics indicate a genuine, deepening and developing friendship, without any ingratiating sycophancy from the younger man nor any pompous pontificating from the elder. Instead, there is honesty, sincerity, tenderness, directness, and sympathy, which we see flowing mainly in the direction of Newton to Ryland (the younger man’s contributions to this flow of reason and feast of soul are currently lost to us).
The arrangement of the volume is obvious, but little embellishments make the reading experience a delight. A few pages of introductory material, including a foreword by Michael Haykin, set the scene and sketch the characters, giving us a little grounding to appreciate the letters themselves. There are eighty-three of these altogether, each followed by a brief editorial contribution that ties up loose ends, explains particular details, and prepares us for the next epistle in the sequence. At the end of the book, together with a brief but helpful index of persons and topics, a few pages bring the stories of Newton and Ryland to a close. Scattered very occasionally through the volume, and bringing snatches of historical colour, are copies of a page from a diary or letter. Footnotes (we are mercifully spared exposure to the quite reprehensible endnote) provide helpful cross-references within the volume, as well as an unobtrusive wealth of historical and scholarly detail for those wishing to follow up particular elements. The text is clear and spacious, and the whole volume well bound.
However, and rightly so, the letters themselves are the undoubted and worthy centrepiece of the feast, and here we must recognise Newton’s singular gifts as a correspondent. Of all those mercies of God that marked the man as a minister, it is perhaps his warmth and understanding as a correspondent that set him apart. The collected letters demonstrate that talent (and, indeed, contain some written to Ryland but published with the preservation of anonymity), but here we are allowed to see the sustained investment, tender concern, and pastoral insight that made his correspondents treasure his letters as genuine marks of Christian love. When one reads the letters, one wishes one might have known the man (and received a few notes oneself), and looks forward even more to meeting him in glory. There is a delightful turn of dry humour, a refreshing if sometimes blunt earthiness, a sturdy and sanctified common sense, in what he writes. So, when writing of marriage and money, after a few friendly jibes, he tells Ryland
I see this will not do; I must get into my own grave way about this grave business. I take it for granted that my friend is free from the love of filthy lucre and that money will never be the turning point with you in the choice of a wife. Methinks I hear you think, ‘If I wanted money, I would either dig or beg for it; but to preach or marry for money, that be far from me.’ I commend you. However, though the love of money be a great evil, money itself, obtained in a fair and honourable way, is desirable, upon many accounts, though not for its own sake. Meat, clothes, fire, and books, cannot easily be had without it. Therefore, if these be necessary, money which procures them must be necessary likewise. (73-74)
He can be at once humble and powerful, searingly honest about his own sins and struggles and therefore both deeply sympathetic and pointedly searching when dealing with the sins and struggles of others. His concern for peace and unity, his fixation on the avoidance of controversy at every available opportunity, also come to the fore repeatedly. One develops the sense of a hearty and full-orbed humanity alive with love to God and his fellow men pouring out through his pen as he counsels, encourages, rebukes and exhorts.
And what wise counsels they truly are! Again, the advantage of watching the relationship and the correspondence develop is that we can see the ebb and flow of the lives being lived, and the issues that Ryland and Newton faced over time. We are therefore able to range over the life of a man and a minister, from the gracious reigning in and redirecting of youthful zeal to the heavy deliberations of elder statesmen in the church of Christ. Along the way, Newton and Ryland wrestle together with the desire for marriage and the challenges of courtship, with the death of wives and children, with the difficulties of esteemed but awkward parents and gifted or sensitive offspring, with controversy at home and abroad, with learning and academia, with calls to remove from one sphere of service and influence to another of different and perhaps wider opportunity, with the writing of books and poems, with suffering and sorrow and sanctification and death itself, with theological truth and error and with the use of the imagination, with the issues of Conformity and Dissent and the relationship between church and state. This last is especially curious. Newton was an Anglican, but seemingly without much conviction about ecclesiology except that it did not matter half as much as some believed it did. Among those with stronger feelings on the matter was Ryland himself, a Particular Baptist, and – while appreciating Newton’s irenic pleas – some today may find that they differ with him about the importance of these matters, while they will continue to find Newton’s observations piquant:
Indeed the Congregationalists and Baptists, who are both equally satisfied that they possess the perfect model of the tabernacle to a single loop or pin, need a double portion of grace to prevent their over admiring the supposed excellency of their forms. There are a few of them however who know that the best forms are but forms still and remember that the Lord abhorred his most express and positive institutions, when the worshippers rested in them. (128)
In such a context, insights into the times in which these men lived, and particularly some of the challenges that stirred and vexed the church in matters of faith and life, seem like almost incidental benefits, though they are certainly there. Consider that these men were movers and shakers in circles alive with missionary zeal, wrestling with the challenges of bringing the good news of Christ to the wider world, and you will immediately become alive to the subtext of some of the later letters as they swap news and encouragements and discouragements, and seek favours of each other in advancing the kingdom of God.
Apart from some of this historical grounding, it is worth noting just how relevant so much of Newton’s advice remains. To be sure, time has passed and circumstances have changed, but the enduring principles and Biblical sense upon which Newton built his counsel has not shifted, and so the reader can readily transpose the guidance and warnings that Newton issued across three hundred years and still find much that will strike and stick at the most appropriate points. It is here that modern men and ministers can derive so much benefit from the wise counsel that God enabled Newton to issue. The dress may be different, but the demands have changed little. Here is the benefit of the younger (or, indeed, older) minister taking the opportunity to peer over the shoulders of the original correspondents as they read and write these heartfelt letters as true companions in Christ.
In a world of texts and tweets, in which Facebook updates can be the only link between alleged friends, and longer emails are copied to lengthy and sometimes indiscriminate lists of more-or-less distant associates, the craft of the personal correspondent is in danger of being lost. Newton and Ryland remind us of its enduring value. What may be lost in immediacy is more than compensated for by depth of thought, balance of phrase and individuality of touch. To be sure, you can accomplish the same ends electronically, but it does require something of a shift in attitude and expectation. After reading this book – and I hope you will – you might not be moved to break out the parchment and quill, or even the sheet and fountain pen. But perhaps you should. You may simply sit again in front of the keyboard and screen, but ponder a different approach and purpose. Whatever the medium, the richness and clear value then and now of such a friendship maintained by such means ought to call older men of God to consider whether or not there are people – perhaps especially younger pastor-preachers – in whom they might invest in this way, and to give younger men an appetite for the cultivation of a relationship with the wise old owls whose experience has given them a fund of insight and understanding to transmit to those who come after them. In the absence of such relationships, or until they develop, we would do well to enjoy the privilege of leaning over Newton’s shoulder as he writes, and Ryland’s as he reads, and soaking in and sucking up this wise counsel.