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3 Lessons in Love from the Author of ‘Amazing Grace’

3 Lessons in Love from the Author of ‘Amazing Grace’

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John Newton is known as the author of Amazing Grace. Newton was always astounded by the grace he received. Towards the end of his life he said “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly; I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

The dearest love in the heart of Newton was the Lord Jesus. But there was another great love that Newton sometimes feared was a rival to his affection for Christ. That rival was his sweet Polly—also known as Mary Catlett and the would-be wife of John Newton. This is their love story.

Love At First Sight? 

It is rather doubtful that John Newton and Mary (Polly) Catlett had feelings of love at first sight. Rather, it’s far more likely that they were fighting over a beloved toy. Elizabeth Newton and Elizabeth Catlett, best friends, had joked that perhaps the then 6-year-old John might Mary the then 3-year-old Polly. Yet even the faintest hopes of their union would seem to have been an impossibility when John’s mother died a year later, and young John was sent off to boarding school.

It would be almost a decade later that the two would “meet.” And on this occasion, at least for John, it was love at first sight. As one biographer wrote: “Almost at first sight of this girl, then under fourteen years of age, he was impressed with such an affection for her as appears to have equaled all that the writers of romance have imagined.”[1]

Just as Gilligan’s “three hour tour” turned into three seasons of television, so also did the smitten Newton’s quick visit turn into a three week stay. Though he was so overtaken by Polly that he mentally replanned his entire life, the young girl was unable to return those affections. And Newton was compelled to serve in the British Navy.

It would be four years that John was away at sea. Though he kept his love for Polly alive, those four years had hardened and shaped Newton into a rebellious and vulgar sailor. Though he would now reject any notion of God, he still had a heart for this young lady who captivated him years prior. As Newton would tell it:

“I soon lost,” says he, “all sense of religion and became deaf to the remonstrances of conscience and prudence: but my regard for her was always the same, and I may, perhaps, venture to say, that none of the scenes of misery and wickedness I afterward experienced ever banished her a single hour together from my waking thoughts for the seven following years.”[2]

But soon, his affections would be transformed by another.

Newton’s Fateful Voyage

While on a slave trading voyage, Newton the sailor was caught in a violent storm. And it was here that for the first time in many years Newton prayed. He was not entirely changed at this point, but it began the first seeds of a deep heart change Newton would experience.

John, who had been corresponding through Polly’s aunt, met some great disappointment. He believed himself unworthy of Polly and decided to break it off. Finances were also an issue. He knew he could not provide the financial stability that the Catlett’s would need to see in order to entrust their beloved Mary to him. His sensibilities, having been somewhat reformed by this storm and now meeting this new discouragement, John decided to end the romance.

Unbeknownst to him, though, his father and the Catlett family had already arranged an engagement between the two. There was only one sticking point—Polly. What would she think of this arrangement? Newton was unsure and often found himself tongue-tied around her. He wrote her by letter to see if she felt the same about him. When she responded, though cautiously, that she shared at least some affection, John was over the moon.

Newton continued his time on a slave ship, hoping to earn a solid living so he could propose marriage. It is difficult to say whether Newton had been actually converted at this point. He doesn’t develop evangelical views until a few years later. But by 1753, we know that his heart was indeed captured by another—the Lord Jesus. He wrote to his, now wife Polly, “I wish to limit my passion within those bounds which God has appointed.”

A Happy Marriage

On February 1, 1750, John Newton and Mary (Polly) Catlett were united in marriage. They would remain together until 1790, when Polly died of breast cancer. Their affections for one another were deep. In 1793, to honor her, John published two volumes of letters that he had sent to Mary throughout their marriage.

They understood that their marriage was a gift from God. Newton once wrote to his wife:

For, when I take up my pen, and begin to consider what I shall say, I am led to think of the goodness of God, who has made you mine, and given me a heart to value you. Thus my love to you, and my gratitude to him, cannot be separated. And, as you are so good to prize my affection, by finding it thus accompanied, you may be assured of its being unalterable. All other love that is not thus connected with a dependence upon God must be precarious. To this want I attribute many unhappy marriages. I believe many persons fall from their hopes of satisfaction in that state, by degrees insensible to themselves; and a secret change, or alienation of mind from each other takes place before they are well aware of it; till, in time, they proceed to such lengths as they would once have judged impossible.[3]

Newton believed that their happy marriage was a direct result of their love for Christ. It became the immovable foundation for their love for one another. This love continued through all of their years. Newton wrote in 1770: “I can remember when the sun seemed to shine in vain, and the whole creation appeared as a blank if you were from me. Not that I love you less. The intercourse of many successive years has endeared you more and more to my heart.”[4]

This love endured through many years of ministry. In 1764, John Newton became rector of the Church at Olney. It was during this time that he developed a friendship with William Cowper. Cowper was often depressed and suicidal and would require almost constant supervision by the Newtons. During this time as pastor of Olney, Newton’s fame grew as his Authentic Narrative was published.

He kept this post in Olney until 1779, when the couple moved to London. This provided far more luxury and comfort but perhaps even more busyness. From Olney and throughout his ministry in London, John was very busy, and this would have likely added some strain to their message—but their dedication to one another and the cause of Christ sustained them. Newton did not take the path of many fellow ministers during the time, who seemed to have all but abandoned their families. Newton remained dedicated to Polly.

They also endured much familial heartbreak. Mary was often gone taking care of her ailing parents and siblings. Also, though the couple never had their own children, they did adopt two of their nieces, Betsy Catlett and Eliza Cunningham. In 1774, they took in Betsy, who would outlive both the Newtons. Eliza came to the Newton’s when she was gravely ill at the age of 12. They took her in as her own until she sadly died in 1785.

It would be five years later that Polly would succumb to breast cancer. Upon her death, Newton wrote:

When I was sure she was gone, I took off her ring, according to her repeated injunction, and put it upon my own finger. I then kneeled down, with the servants who were in the room, and returned the Lord my unfeigned thanks for her deliverance and her peaceful dismission.

How wonderful must be the moment after death! What a transition did she then experience! She was instantly freed from sin, and all its attendant sorrows, and, I trust, instantly admitted to join the heavenly choir. That moment was remarkable to me, likewise. It removed from me the chief object which made another day or hour of life, as to my own personal concern, desirable. At the same time, it set me free from a weight of painful feelings and anxieties, under which nothing short of a divine power could have so long supported me.[5]

Newton was certainly grief-stricken, but it didn’t impact his ministry. He continued on in all of his ministry the next day. He even preached at Polly’s funeral. Many critiqued him for this, but his resolve here was connected to the entire pattern of their marriage. He loved Polly deeply. But he also understood that she was a gift to him from God. He held her in proper place and so he was able to hold her well.

Their love story is a beautiful reminder of the depth of Christian love. But it’s also a picture of Christ’s love for the church. It motivates us to love others deeply but to keep our affections proper so we can love people well. This kind of love flows from Christ.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/carton_king

[1] John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 6.
[2] John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 6.

[3] John Newton and Richard Cecil, The Works of John Newton, vol. 5 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 394–395.
[4] John Newton and Richard Cecil, The Works of John Newton, vol. 5 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 564.
[5] John Newton and Richard Cecil, The Works of John Newton, vol. 5 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 621.

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.

This article originally appeared on Christianity.com. For more faith-building resources, visit

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