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From a Letter, March 10, 1774

by John Newton

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Letter # 13 from "26 Letters to a Nobleman"

For about six weeks past I have had occasion to spend several hours of almost every day with the sick and the dying. These scenes are to a minister like walking the hospitals to a young surgeon. The various cases which occur, exemplify, illustrate, and explain, with a commanding energy, many truths which may be learned indeed at home but cannot be so well understood, or their force so sensibly felt, without the advantage of experience and observation. As physicians, besides that competent general knowledge of their profession, which should be common to them all, have usually their several favourite branches of study, some applying themselves more to botany, others to chemistry, others to anatomy; so ministers, as their inclinations and gifts differ, are led more closely to consider some particular branch of the system of divine truth.

Some are directed to state and defend the doctrines of the Gospel; some have a talent for elucidating difficult texts of Scripture; some have a turn for explaining the prophetical parts, and so of the rest. For myself if it be lawful to speak of myself, and so far as I can judge, anatomy is my favourite branch; I mean the study of the human heart, with its workings and counter-workings, as it is differently affected in a state of nature or of grace, in the different seasons of prosperity, adversity, conviction, temptation, sickness, and the approach of death. The Lord, by sending me hither, provided me a good school for these purposes. I know not where I could have had a better, or affording a greater variety of characters, in proportion to the number of people; and as they are mostly a poor people, and strangers to that address which is the result of education and converse with the world, there is a simplicity in what they say or do, which gives me a peculiar advantage in judging of their cases.

But I was about to speak of death. Though the grand evidence of those truths upon which our hopes are built, arises from the authority of God speaking them in His word, and revealing them by His Spirit, to the awakened heart, (for till the heart is awakened, it is incapable of receiving this evidence) yet some of these truths are so mysterious, so utterly repugnant to the judgment of depraved nature, that through the remaining influence of unbelief and vain reasoning, the temptations of Satan, and the subtile arguments with which some men, reputed wise, attack the foundations of our faith, the minds even of believers are sometimes capable of being shaken.

I know no better corroborating evidence for the relief of the mind under such assaults than the testimony of dying persons, especially of such as have lived out of the noise of controversy, and who, perhaps, never heard a syllable of what has been started in these evil days against the Deity of Christ, His atonement, and other important articles.

Permit me, my Lord, to relate, upon this occasion some things which exceedingly struck me in the conversation I had with a young woman whom I visited in her last illness, about two years ago. She was a sober, prudent person, of plain sense, could read her Bible, but had read little beside: her knowledge of the world was nearly confined to the parish; for I suppose she was seldom, if ever, twelve miles from home in her life. She had known the Gospel about seven years before the Lord visited her with a lingering consumption, which at length removed her to a better world.

A few days before her death, I had been praying by her bedside, and in my prayer I thanked the Lord, that He gave her now to see that she had not followed cunningly-devised fables. When I had finished, she repeated that word, "No (she said), not cunningly- devised fables; these are realities indeed; I feel their truth, I feel their comfort. O tell my friends, tell my acquaintance, tell inquiring souls, tell poor sinners, tell all the daughters of Jerusalem, (alluding to Solomon's Song, 5:16, from which she had just before desired me to preach at her funeral), what Jesus has done for my soul. Tell them, that now, in the time of need, I find Him my Beloved and my Friend, and as such I commend Him to them."

She then fixed her eyes steadfastly upon me, and proceeded, as well as I can recollect, as follows : "Sir, you are highly favoured in being called to preach the Gospel. I have often heard you with pleasure; but give me leave to tell you, that I now see all you have said, or can say, is comparatively but little. Nor till you come into my situation, and have death and eternity full in your view, will it be possible for you to conceive the vast weight and importance of the truths you declare. Oh! Sir, it is a serious thing to die; no words can express what is needful to support the soul in the solemnity of a dying hour."

I believe it was the next day when I visited her again after some discourse as usual, she said, with a remarkable vehemence of speech, "Are you sure I cannot be mistaken? I answered without hesitation, "Yes, I am sure; I am not afraid to say, My soul for yours, that you are right." She paused a little, and then replied, "You say true; I know I am right. I feel that my hope is fixed upon the Rock of Ages; I know in whom I have believed. Yet, if you could see with my eyes, you would not wonder at my question. But the approach of death presents a prospect, which is till then hidden from us, and which cannot be described."

She said much more to the same purpose; and in all she spoke there was a dignity, weight, and evidence, which I suppose few professors of divinity, when lecturing from the chair, have at any time equalled. We may well say with Elihu, who teacheth like Him? Many instances of the like kind I have met with here. I have a poor girl near me who looks like an idiot, and her natural capacity is indeed very small; but the Lord has been pleased to make her acquainted alternately with great temptations, and proportionably great discoveries of His love and truth. Sometimes, when her heart is enlarged, I listen to her with astonishment. I think no books or ministers I ever met with have given me such an impression and understanding of what the apostle calls (Ed. Note-Greek Reference here I am unable to reproduce properly), as I have upon some occasions received from her conversation.

But I am rambling again. My attendance upon the sick is not always equally comfortable; but could I learn aright, it might be equally instructive. Some confirm the preciousness of a Saviour to me, by the cheerfulness with which, through faith in His name, they meet the king of terrors. Others no less confirm it, by the terror and reluctance they discover when they find they must die ; for though there are too many who sadly slight the blessed Gospel while they are in health, yet in this place most are too far enlightened to be quite thoughtless about their souls, if they retain their senses, in their last illness. Then, like the foolish virgins, they say, Give us of your oil: then they are willing that ministers and professors should pray with them and speak to them.

Through the Lord's goodness, several whom I have visited in these circumstances have afforded me good hope; they have been savingly changed by His blessing upon what has passed at the eleventh hour. I have seen a marvellous and blessed change take place in their language, views, and tempers, in a few days. I now visit a young person, who is cut short in her nineteenth year by a consumption, and I think cannot live many days. I found her very ignorant and insensible, and she remained so a good while; but of late I hope her heart is touched. She feels her lost state, she seems to have some right desires, she begins to pray, and in such a manner as I cannot but hope the Lord is teaching her, and will reveal Himself to her before she departs. But it is sometimes otherwise. I saw a young woman die last week; I had been often with her; but the night she was removed she could only say, O, I cannot live, I cannot live!

She repeated this mournful complaint as long as she could speak for as the vital powers were more oppressed, her voice was changed into groans; her groans grew fainter and fainter, and in about a quarter of an hour after she had done speaking she expired. Poor thing! I thought, as I stood by her bedside, if you were a duchess, in this situation, what could the world do for you now! I thought likewise how many things are there that now give us pleasure or pain, and assume a mighty importance in our view, which, in a dying hour, will be no more to us than the clouds which fly unnoticed over our heads. Then the truth of our Lord's aphorism will be seen, felt, and acknowledged, "One thing is needful"; and we shall be ready to apply Gracious dying confession to (alas !) a great part of our lives, Ah! vitam perdidi, nihil agendo laboriose.

Your Lordship allows me to send unpremeditated letters. I need not assure you this is one.

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