Wisdom & Zeal: A Letter from John Newton to Charles Simeon

By Kenneth Berding Dec. 13, 2012 11:19 a.m. Church Life, Ministry and Leadership, Spiritual Formation

I just came across a 230 year old letter that is loaded with wisdom, love, zeal, and grace from an experienced "pastor" to a new "pastor."  John Newton (1725-1807, former slave-trader, composer of “Amazing Grace,” Anglican priest) wrote a letter to the 23 year old Charles Simeon (1759-1836) upon Simeon's ministerial appointment at Holy Trinity Church (Cambridge, England), a post at which Simeon would serve for 53 years!  Charles Simeon was to have an enormous impact upon future Christian leaders (including the famous missionary Henry Martyn), but at this stage he was a somewhat impetuous young man who had been appointed to a church filled with congregants who didn’t want him.  John Newton (age 57) wrote an incredibly loving and wise letter to the young Simeon to encourage him to pursue wisdom—which Simeon lacked somewhat at this stage of his life—and zeal, which was strong at this stage but unstable.  I have excerpted some of Newton’s letter to Simeon for you here:

The Lord sees fit to fix you in a noble stand indeed.  Were I a collegian, I think I should prefer a church in one of our Universities (and perhaps Cambridge especially) to any station in the kingdom.  And yet I overrate myself in thinking I would dare to make such a choice, were it in my power…He has chosen for you, and on Him therefore you may confidently rely for all that patience, fortitude, and meekness of wisdom which you will need, especially in a place where so many eyes will be upon you, so many tongues ready to circulate every report to your prejudice, and so many ears open to receive them.

Your sense of His great goodness, and the strong impression you have received of the power and reality of unseen things, have inspired you with a commendable zeal.  Shall I advise you to repress your zeal?  Far from it.  It would better become me to wish to catch fire from you than to attempt to chill you by the cold maxims which often pass for prudence.  Yet there is such a thing as true Christian prudence, and perhaps at this time Satan may not attempt to damp your zeal, but to push you to extremes, to make you throw unnecessary difficulties in your own way, and thereby to preclude your usefulness.  If the heart be right with God, the best means for avoiding this overdoing is a close attention to the whole Scripture.  Detached texts or sentences may seem to countenance what by no means will accord with the general tenor of the whole.  Particularly the spirit and conduct of our Lord in the days of His humiliation furnish the best model.  His manner, His gentleness, His patient attention to the weakness and prejudices of those around Him, we cannot imitate too closely.

[Note that now Newton, who has just exhorted Simeon to pursue wisdom, is now going to warn him about how easily zeal can be lost, especially through “small” sins…]

I have known more ministers than one greatly hurt when they have been able to smile upon the well-meant indiscretions they committed when their experience was but small.  By degrees zeal instead of being regulated is extinguished, till at length the love of the world and the fear of man prevail.  Thus I have seen some frozen into mere lifeless images of their former selves, and some have not even retained a resemblance of what they were.  So I have almost by habit a fear and jealousy over those who are remarkably warm and active at their first setting out.

I have left little room for an apology if necessary.  But I hope you will not expect one.  I love you and wish you well, and shall be glad to hear from you whenever you are at leisure.

Believe me to be, dear Sir,

Your affectionate friend and servant,

John Newton

 

Note:  I found this letter in a biography of Charles Simeon written in 1892 by another godly Christian man of a later era, Handley Moule.  The title of the book is simply Charles Simeon (Christian Focus, reprint 1997).  Newton’s letter to Simeon is reproduced on pages 39-40.

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