In 1764, John Newton published his life story in An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton Communicated in a Series of Letters. It was an instant success, reprinted many times over. Overnight, Newton became a celebrity in England.
Many people know that Newton wrote hundreds and hundreds of hymns—beautiful hymns, including “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and, of course, “Amazing Grace.” A lesser-known fact is that he also wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters. Many of his letters are pastoral, and in some, he offered specific counsel to a very specific person who was dear to his heart. We have twenty-one letters from Newton to his adopted niece Betsy. John and Mary Newton had no children of their own, but they adopted two nieces born to Mary’s siblings. The children’s names were Elizabeth Cunningham and Betsy Catlett.
While Betsy was away at school, Newton would write letters to her. On September 8, 1779, he wrote: “My dear child, pray to God, and never be content or satisfied until you feel your desire and love upon him. Nothing less will content me for you. If you should behave to me and your mama with the greatest tenderness, affection, and attention, as you grow up, I would still weep over you if I saw you negligent and ungrateful towards the Lord.”
Another time he wrote to her: “Then ask yourself how it is, or why you are better off than others you might see? And I hope there is something within you that will tell you, whatever the reason may be, it is not because you are better in yourself, or that you deserve better things than others. Know this, your heart is no better. You likewise are a sinner. You were born with a sinful disposition, and though you are a child, you have sinned against the Lord so that had he been strict to mark what is a miss, he might justly have cut you off long ago. The only reason why you have anything favorable in your life must be the Lord’s mercy and goodness.”
It wasn’t all spiritual things that Newton wrote to his daughter. At one point, he wrote to her and said, “Your mama sent you a cake, which I hope you received, and if you did, I suppose it is all gone by this time. For they say, you cannot eat your cake and have it too.” Newton also wrote to his daughter Betsy: “You, my dear, are favored with health, and I hope you will be thankful for it. Many other young people I could name know the value of health by the lack of it.” He goes on to say, “When you see an old woman tottering about with a stick, consider that she was once as young as you are now, and probably just as lively, and her limbs just as agile as yours.” Then, he said to her, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.”
In December 1790, Newton’s beloved wife, Mary, became ill, and she died on the night of December 15. Newton called his wife’s death his great trial that would last to the end of his days. On the first anniversary of her death, he wrote, “I have not only read these gracious promises in Scripture and believe them to be true, but I have tried them, and found them to be true.” He was clinging to God’s Word at the end of his life, and he was also leaning on his daughter Betsy. After his wife’s death, Betsy cared for him. She had married an optician. In the end, Newton’s health deteriorated. He had lost his eyesight, and as his own death approached in 1807, she was right by his side. Betsy cared for him through it all, right until the end of his life.