You may have heard the phrase before: Behind every great man there’s a great woman. Like most maxims, it is generally true, even if not universally true. But here’s the surprise: Sometimes that great woman is not behind the man, but before him. Sometimes that great woman is not his wife but his mother. In this new series, “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms,” we are looking at noteworthy Christian leaders whose most formative spiritual influence was a godly mother.
We begin with a man whose mother proves that spiritual strength can abide even where there is physical frailty. She was his first and dearest teacher, the one who first taught him truth and the one who first modeled it in her life. Though his gentle early years would soon give way to the deepest depths of depravity, he would eventually be rescued by God’s amazing grace. Later he would say, “My dear mother, besides the rains she took with me, often commended me with many prayers and tears to God; and I doubt not but I reap the fruits of these prayers to this hour.” John Newton would wander, he would run, he would pursue every manner of sin, but he could never escape the great strength of that weak mother.
A Pious Woman
John Newton was born on August 4, 1725, in London, the only son of Elizabeth and John. History has not recorded how his parents met and married, but it does tell of the impact they made on their son’s life—John Sr. as a stern and often absent father, and Elizabeth as a gentle, caring mother whose life was tragically short-lived.
Elizabeth Scatliff was born around 1705 in Middlesex, England, the lone daughter of Simon Scatliff who worked and lived in East London as a maker of mathematical instruments. Little is known of her early days except that she received a fine education and was raised a Nonconformist, a Protestant who chose not to associate with the established Anglican Church. John Sr. was a sea captain who regularly sailed the Mediterranean Sea, taking him away from home for months at a time. He was also a strict disciplinarian who insisted on maritime conventions even in his home.
By the time of John’s birth, Elizabeth and her husband were members of the Old Gravel Lane Independent Meeting House, a Dissenting congregation pastored by Dr. David Jennings. While Elizabeth’s faith was genuine, her husband’s appears to have been merely formal. John would later say that though his father was a moral man, he had not come under the true “impressions of religion.”
Because of his mother’s warm faith and his father’s long absences, John grew to be very close to Elizabeth, whom he later described as a “Dissenter, a pious woman” who was “of a weak, consumptive habit, and loved retirement.” As did so many in that time, Elizabeth suffered from tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually claim her life. Among the many symptoms of her tuberculosis was chronic fatigue, which often confined her to bed.
Though Elizabeth was unable to function as she might have wished, she did not squander her days. Knowing that time with her son might be short, she determined to make the most of what remained. She took on the role of teacher and spent hours with John each day. She was a good instructor, and he was an eager, bookish student. He progressed quickly. “When I was four years old, I could read, (hard names excepted,) as well as I can now: and could likewise repeat the answers to the questions in the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, with the proofs; and all Dr. Watt’s smaller Catechisms, and his Children’s Hymns.” From this list of material we know that Elizabeth consistently trained her son in Reformed theology. John later wrote, “As I was her only child, she made it the chief business and pleasure of her life to instruct me, and bring me up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Based on her son’s quick mind and easy grasp of theology, Elizabeth prayed and hoped God would call him to ministry. “My mother observed my early progress with peculiar pleasure, and intended from the first to bring me up with a view to the ministry, if the Lord should so incline my heart.” She may have gone so far as to devote him to the ministry through prayer and to form plans to enroll him in the Calvinistic school of divinity at St. Andrew’s in Scotland.
Sadly, Elizabeth would not live to see such a day. By early 1732, her disease had advanced and her symptoms had become grave. She traveled to the coast, hoping the sea air would provide respite or cure. But it was to no avail, and she succumbed to tuberculosis on July 11 at the age of 27. John was thought to be too young to witness his mother’s final days, so he remained with family friends and learned the terrible news just two weeks short of his seventh birthday.
John Sr. returned from his voyage in 1733 and, learning of his wife’s death, wasted no time in remarrying. John’s step-mother was at first attentive, but she soon bore children of her own and lost interest in John, excluding him from family life. He became distant and rebellious. When John was just 11, after he had attended boarding school for a year or two, his father decided it was high time for the boy to head to sea. And the rest, as they say, is history. He would rebel against God and commit horrifying atrocities. But later, he would experience God’s amazing grace and become a preacher, hymn writer, and abolitionist. He would tell his own story and the story of every Christian in his most famous song: “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.”
A Weak Body, A Strong Faith
When John Newton looked back on his life, he was quick to give credit to his mother. He knew his eventual salvation was inseparable from the early training he had received on her knee and from the many prayers she had prayed on his behalf. “Though in process of time I sinned away all the advantages of these early impressions, yet they were for a great while a restraint upon me; they returned again and again, and it was very long before I could wholly shake them off; and when the Lord at length opened my eyes, I found a great benefit from the recollection of them.” Elizabeth, he said, had “stored my memory, which was then very retentive, with many valuable pieces, chapters and portions of scripture, catechisms, hymns, and poems.”
Though Elizabeth was gravely ill for all of her son’s early life, she did not allow her condition to keep her from fulfilling her God-given duty. To the contrary, her illness made her urgent to lay an early foundation of Christian doctrine and practice. She used what strength she had to express the deepest kind of love for her son. She taught him to know God’s existence, God’s holiness, and God’s demands on his life. She taught him songs that would remain in his mind and heart until his dying day. She taught him to honor the Bible and to turn to it for spiritual knowledge and strength. She taught him the good news of the gospel, that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. She displayed a sweet submission to God’s will and a deep piety, treasuring and obeying God’s every word. As biographer Jonathan Aitken says, “The spiritual lessons the boy had learned at his mother’s knee were never forgotten. They become the foundation for Newton’s eventual conversion and Christian commitment.” We cannot understand this great man apart from his godly mother.
You, too, may be weak. You, too, may battle frailness and illness. Or perhaps you have some other besetting weakness. Learn from Elizabeth that a mother of feeble physique can still be formidable in faith. See how God delights to use even the weakest people to preach the greatest news. Like Elizabeth, make the most of every day and every opportunity, for you do not know how many years you will have to love, teach, and train your son. Know that those early lessons are not easily forgotten, that this early foundation is not soon destroyed, that your labor in motherhood is not in vain.
Information for this article was drawn predominantly from The Works of John Newton and from Jonathan Aitken’s magnificent biography John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. I also recommend Newton on the Christian Life by Tony Reinke.