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John Newton on the Trials of Mental Disorders

John Newton on the Trials of Mental Disorders

In 1801, John Newton was nearing the end of his active ministry because of his gradually failing faculties. His eyesight was going, as were his hearing and memory. He was more and more dependent upon his niece (and adopted daughter), Betsy Catlett, to help him with the reading and writing of the many letters that came every day. So, it was a particular trial for him, as well as for her, when she was committed to Bethlem Hospital for about a year for depression.

In his diary, Newton wrote:

You sent her to me when she was little more than five years old. You gave me a parent’s heart for her and did so bless my endeavours to bring her to Thee, that my wages were a rich reward. But this year it has pleased Thee to require of me, as You did Your servant Abraham, to resign my Isaac, me beloved child to Your sovereign, wise, and holy will. She is now in Bethlehem; and though I have many causes for thankfulness for alleviations, my trial, You know, is great. I trust, however, that she likewise is Thine, and that Your name is indelibly engraved upon her heart. O my Lord, bow, I beseech Thee, my will to Thine. Keep in my mind Your voluntary humiliation and suffering. You have given me a desire to lie before Thee as clay in the hands of the potter; let Your grace be sufficient for me.

Josiah Bull records that Newton would walk every morning to the hospital in order to wave to Miss Catlett and would wait until she saw him and waved back, before returning home.

Newton had previous experience with mental and spiritual disorders in dealing with his friend, William Cowper, but this had been many years before, when he was almost thirty years younger. Now, with the loss of someone he depended upon daily, especially in his old age, he had to grapple with God’s Providence. And in doing, we have been blessed to have his thoughts as he writes to his friend John Campbell in Scotland:

London, September 19, 1801

My Dear Sir,

It is high time to thank you for your kind consolatory letter of the 30th June; but my eyes fail me, so that I cannot write much.

My dear Miss Catlett is laid aside from me at the very time she seems most needful to me. For now, I can neither read nor write by candlelight, and but little by daylight. I miss her much as my secretary and reader. But I miss her still more as my dear delightful, affectionate, and attentive companion. Most of all my heart is pained by her sufferings. She is always dying to her own apprehension, and what is worse, thinks that the death she hourly expects will plunge her into the pit of perdition; for she thinks the Lord has cast her off as a hypocrite and will show her no mercy. Blessed be His name, I am sure this is owing to her malady. I know no person of whose stock and acceptance in the Beloved I am more satisfied. But her distrust at present is great and, of course, my trial is heavy.

I am under a painful dispensation, but I am mercifully supported – not by lively frames or sensible comforts, I have seldom been favoured with these – but I am enabled, by His grace, to cleave to His written word. I believe that this affliction does not spring out of the ground, that the thing is of the Lord, and that He is wise and good, and therefore, surely does and will do, all things well. I believe He can, and I trust He will, bring light out of this dark dispensation; but it is my part to wait His time, way, and will, with submission.

My health is good, and my spirits. I eat and sleep as usual, and preach as much, and seemingly, with as much acceptance as formerly. Perhaps I may be heard more attentively now, for they who know me take it for granted that I could not preach at all, as things are, if the Lord Himself was not to uphold me. I hope some are encouraged by observing his goodness to me and possibly I may speak with more emphasis to the afflicted from what I feel in myself.

The Lord is sovereign, I am a sinner. He has the same right to me and mine, as the potter over the clay. And if He has pardoned our sins, and united us to Himself, all will be well at last. We ought to be willing to be placed in the most painful situation, if it may promote His glory, which should be our highest end, for He suffered much more for us than He will ever lay upon us. And since He has said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,’ and ‘My strength shall be perfected in your weakness,’ and promised that ‘all shall work together for good’ in the final issue, I am to leave all in His hands, and am, in some measure enabled to do so. But, I find, if the spirit be willing, the flesh is weak. Self and unbelief often assail me.

She has now been seven weeks in Bethlem Hospital. For though only the Lord can relieve her, He usually answers prayers in the use of means. There she has the best. I have many alleviations to thank Him for. She is gentle and compliant with all the rules of the place, submits to everything required without coercion, is much favoured by those who have the care of her, and is so well pleased with treatment, that she expresses no desire of coming out. Praise the Lord, O my soul, for these mercies. She is neither mopish, nor frantic, and the Lord has disposed the heart of strangers to be her friends. She is certainly not worse. But a malady of this kind is seldom cured suddenly.

The Lord can restore her to peace and to me, and if He sees it best upon the whole, He will. But should she die deranged while I am living, my thoughts would without hesitation follow her to a place among those who surround the throne of glory with songs of praise, day and night, day without night, to the Lamb who sets upon all, and who redeemed them by His blood. Time is short, we are traveling on, and shall soon be at home. Then, farewell sin and sorrow for ever. Heaven and eternity will make rich amends for all the sufferings which His wise plan may appoint us to endure while here.

I beg all your prayers. I need them, and I prize them. May the Lord bless you wherever you are and make you a blessing to many. Amen.

I am your affectionate and obliged,

John Newton

Miss Catlett eventually recovered and was released from the hospital, after a stay of about a year. She married Joseph Smith, an optician, in 1805. John Newton died a couple of years later, in 1807. She was to survive her husband,  who died in 1825. She died in 1834.

This is from an upcoming book of letters from John Newton to John Campbell, that I have edited. It contains some letters and many parts of letters previously unpublished. The above is an example of a published letter with many of the personal details missing that have now been restored.