John Newton to James Cuningham

27 April 1771     

Mr James Cuningham
Five Bell Lane
Dear Brother,
I learn from Mr Samples [1] that the uneasiness and lowness of spirits of which you complained when we were at Chatham, still continues. It gives me much concern, and would give me more, but that I see all events under the direction of a wise and gracious God, who can make all things work together for good. Yet still I feel for you and my sister, and should be glad if I could offer you any consolation now you are in trouble. But my dear Brother, what is the ground of your trouble? I know you think yourself happy in your wife, she is spared to you, and was mercifully brought through circumstances of danger, which might have quickly bereaved you of her. [2] You love your children and they are all fine children neither deformed in their bodies, nor defective in their faculties, but promise fair by God's blessing to be comforts to their parents. Your character is respected and your subsistence safe. I beg you to look round about you, and see how highly favoured you are in these respects above thousands. I hope the comparison will remind you that you have great cause of thankfulness, and upon the whole but little reason for complaint.
I do not at all wonder that when you had a probable prospect of making a prudent and satisfactory exchange, you should be very desirous of continuing with your family. Had your application succeeded I should have rejoiced, and it would have given me a very sincere pleasure if I could have been instrumental in procuring it. But as your designs were overruled, if it should at last be necessary for you to attend your ship, I beg you would not consider it as a calamity, or perplex yourself by confining your views to the immediate causes of your disappointment but look higher. The hand of Providence, my brother, has the direction of all your concerns. O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself, it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. Jeremiah 10:23. He that placed the sun in the firmament appoints us our several situations, nor is it in the power of a First Lord of the Admiralty to fix you anywhere, but where the Lord of the whole earth would have you to be. Men are but instruments of accomplishing his will. Again, when we are removed from one situation to another, it is he that does it. If he opens the way by his providence, either unexpectedly to us, or by giving his blessing to the means he puts in our power, where he leads we may follow with safety, honour and comfort. But if he forbids, no attempts can succeed. We cannot break through his lines, [3] and we must be miserable if we could, for we are no more able than we are worthy to choose for ourselves. When he is pleased to appear for us, he will find means, he will make enemies friends, and every difficulty shall give way before us. But if we aim at any thing, which is not agreeable to his will, though it appears ever so practicable, easy and sure in the prospect, it shall not take place. For who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth not? Lamentations 3:37. In such a case the friends on whom we most confidently depend will certainly disappoint our expectations, either from a want of power or a want of will. Nor are they to be altogether blamed; they are but creatures and therefore vanity – clouds without water unless he is pleased to fill them, and both Scripture and experience confirm to us, that no creature can afford us either help or comfort, but as God is pleased to make use of them in our behalf, neither can they cause us any trouble but according to his permission. Isaiah 2:22. [4] If Joseph obtains favour in the eyes of Potiphar and the keeper of the prison, it is the Lord that gives it. If Solomon has any adversaries, it is God that stirs them up against him. Genesis 39:2, 28[23?] 1 Kings 11:14,23. [5]
I hope, however, your uneasiness will in the end prove a blessing to you, for this I daily pray. Suffer me to speak freely to you. You had a religious education, and by the restraining grace of God have been enabled to maintain a sober and unblameable course of life in the sight of men. But there is a something in true religion which the best education cannot communicate, and which a person of strict honesty and sobriety may be much a stranger to. Allow me to say, If all was right within, all would be right without. You now find by experience that you have not a power to submit to the will of God, though you know it to be your duty, and believe it to be your interest. What is wanting? Will you allow me to give my judgement – I think you have not yet received a due conviction of sin, and of your state as a sinner in the sight of God. This conviction shows us the propriety of the Prophet's question, Why should a living man complain? [6] This argument will stop the mouth, not only under such disappointments as yours, but under the surest afflictions we can meet with, when we truly know in our hearts (for it is easy to confess it in words) what we are, and what we have deserved. Again, I think you have not yet received that faith which by uniting the soul to Jesus, gives a peace passing understanding, and which no change in life can deprive us of. But I hope the Lord will lead you to these things, and that you will one day praise him, for this Cross which now sets so heavy upon you. Ah, dear brother, One thing is needful. [7] Life is short and uncertain, and eternity is approaching. This should be our great concern, to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection – that when he shall appear we may appear with him in glory.
The Apostle says, Is any man afflicted? Let him pray. [8] I hope you do and will attend to this precept. The Lord shows you your own weakness, and how small a matter (comparatively) will suffice to embitter all the comforts of life, that you may thereby learn, that this is not, cannot be, your rest. And as natural means I would wish you to use air and exercise and endeavour to be cheerful. Consider my sister and how much her peace depends upon your getting the better of this load. For though she has good spirits and resolution, and will conceal as much as she can, what might increase your trouble, yet I am sure she cannot but be much affected to see you in such a constant heaviness. I hope you will take my letter in good part. I love to write freely to my friends, and I am sure you have a friend's place in my heart. The smallpox still continues, and has been rather more fatal of late than before. So we must not wish to see our little boy yet, but give our love to him, and to Sukey.
Tell Jacky Molly Bear [9] is dead and gone to heaven, indeed she seemed to be in heaven before she died.
[in Mary Newton's hand:]
We hope the smallpox will be soon over, and then we shall expect to see our dear boy.
[Newton continuing:]
Give our love and respects to Aunt Soan, duty to father and mother, love to Brother George and Sister Sally. [10] We join in cordial love to you both.

Believe me to be sincerely
Your very affectionate brother

John Newton
Olney 27 April 1771

[1] Nathan Sample (1732 -1785), born and bred in Olney, was a lace dealer, who sold on Olney lace to London. His regular travels made him an ideal courier for the Newtons. He features often in their letters and in Newton’s diary carrying out errands for them. He had been a faithful attendant at Olney church, in turn leading the prayers at the Great House meetings on a Tuesday. When Newton moved to London it seems that Sample showed a different side to his character. On Nathan’s death Cowper reminisced to Newton: ‘He had a weak head and strong passions’. See Mrs Sample's Boarding School for Girls (c. 1790-c.1809).
[2] Elizabeth, youngest daughter of James and Elizabeth Cunningham, was christened at St Margaret’s on 4 March 1771. Perhaps it had been a difficult birth and James’s wife had nearly died.
[3] Isaiah 2:22 Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?
[4] Genesis 39:2 And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian;
Genesis 39:23 The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper.
[5] 1 Kings 11:14,23 And the Lord stirred up an adversary unto Solomon, Hadad the Edomite: he was of the king's seed in Edom. And God stirred him up another adversary, Rezon the son of Eliadah, which fled from his lord Hadadezer king of Zobah:
[6] Lamentations 3:39 Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?
[7] Luke 10:42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
[8] James 5:13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
[9] Mary (Molly) Bear was buried at Olney on 16 April 1771. Jacky Cunningham lived with the Newton’s for a year in 1768, aged 3-4 years old. Since Mary Bear does not appear in Newton’s list of children at his Thursday meetings for 1765, it is possible she was about the same age as Jacky. An Elizabeth Bear (née Samples) was christened at Olney on 6 April 1765, aged 26 years. Her name (E Bear) is in Newton’s list of adults in his 1767 diary. She was the wife of Thomas Bear, whom she married at Olney on 3 March 1761.
[10] Polly’s brother George Catlett (1742-1774) married Sarah (Sally) Kite (1739-1773]) at St Mary’s Dover on 3 Feb 1767. Newton noted in his diary on 13 May 1773: ‘Received the news of Sister Catlett’s death at Dover, of a consumption.’ The Newtons adopted their daughter Elizabeth (Betsy) when she was orphaned on her father’s death.

Lambeth Palace Library, MS 3096, ff51-52  

Marylynn Rouse, 19/08/2019