Joseph Fort Newton was born on July 21, 1876 in Decatur, Texas, the son of a former Baptist minister who had become a lawyer. He told the story of his life in a fascinating autobiography published in 1946, Rivers of Years.
His was a most unusual career. He was ordained at the early age of nineteen to the Baptist ministry, though he had grave doubts about accepting service in a church whose theology he did not believe. His mother's wise counsel was "Listen only to Jesus. Accept what He says about God, what He shows God to be in His life, nothing else, nothing less; test everything by Him -- forget the rest."1 This gave him a faith to satisfy his mind and to make his ministry positive, and made him indifferent to the divisions which separate the churches.
After studying at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, he became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Paris, Texas. After little more than a year he left his native state and the church of his parents to seek a wider, freer fellowship, as well as a more untrammeled ministry. He founded the People's Church at Dixon, Illinois, remaining there seven years, then became pastor of the Liberal Christian Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he served for eight years.
In 1917, he accepted a call to the City Temple in London, a Congregational Church, as the successor of R. J. Campbell. In 1919 he returned to America as minister of the Church of the Divine Paternity in New York City. In 1925 he was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, and became Rector of St. Paul's, Overbrook, in Philadelphia. Five years later he was appointed Rector of St. James Church in the same city. His last years were spent as Rector of the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany in the city of brotherly love. A Baptist, an independent, a Congregationalist, and finally an Episcopalian!
Newton was a lord of language, the master of a distinctive style, which might be described as poetic prose. There is a grace of expression in all his writings, a facility for haunting phrases, a colorful imagination, and delicate humor. His style is somewhat marred by excessive alliteration.
Writing of Newton's New York ministry, Lynn Harold Hough contrasts him with Fosdick: "In the work of Dr. Fosdick there is none of that mellowness, that ripe grace of expression which gives charm to the work of Dr. Newton. Dr. Fosdick is often wonderfully brilliant. And he is magnificently alive. But he has not been alive very long. In some of his deepest moods Dr. Newton makes you feel as if, like the Sphinx, he has seen the whole pageant of the ages and through centuries of meditation he has grown wise. Dr. Fosdick finds the keen phrase. His writing makes you think of linen of the very best and most durable quality. Dr. Newton finds the haunting phrase. He makes you think of rare old satin with here and there a touch of royally beautiful brocade."2
When his book The Eternal Christ was published in 1912, Newton's friend Edwin L. Shuman, of the Chicago Record-Herald, said that it was written "in pellucid, unobstructive beauty of style, uniting the skyey quality of Emerson with the mellow humanism and magnetism of Brooks, with a radiant faith in the things of the spirit that should give it many friends both inside and outside the churches."3