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 Edgar De Witt Jones expressed his feeling after hearing Newton preach by saying, “This is the man, these are the lips that speak the most chaste and beautiful English in the Christian pulpit today.”4 As a preacher Newton was a rare combination of the mystic, the teacher and the prophet. His pulpit utterance was marked by a quiet, earnest, easy delivery. Preaching was to him a never-ceasing source of joy.
In the first chapter of his autobiography, Newton confesses that the pulpit was his place of release from inner solitude and silence. “The pulpit is a public place, but its message has to do with the most intimate and inward affairs of the human heart — things we seldom say to anyone or allow anyone to say to us, save in the most confidential friendship, or in hours of crisis and disaster when the soul is near the surface. Yet the awful public-privacy of the pulpit not only permits, but invites, the opening of heart to heart, and one may speak to a thousand people words which one would hardly speak to a friend. Such is the wonder of preaching; it is unlike any other speech known among men.”5
In 1917, Newton was invited to give the Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale, but his war-time ministry in London prevented his acceptance of the invitation. In 1930 he published The New Preaching, lectures given at the College of Preachers in Washington. A life-long love of preaching and a conviction of the divine origin and permanent necessity of the office of the preacher moved him to give these lectures. The head of the village school where he had his early training, knowing that Newton was thinking of entering the ministry, said something that made a profound and permanent impression on him: “If a preacher cannot remember his sermon long enough to preach it, nobody will remember it long after it is preached.” Newton wished that it were impossible for a sermon to be read, so that the preacher might be set free to look his people in the eyes and talk of things he knows too well to forget.
His own sermons were never written until after they were preached. This gave him the benefit of the reactions of the congregation. What he received from them in mist, he tried to return in gentle rain. Newton tells us that half a dozen times in his life he wrote sermons and read them, but only once with real success.
Newton recognized the necessity for writing sermons even though they were not to be read in the pulpit. In an interview with Edgar De Witt Jones he said: “A young preacher ought to write his sermons for years, if only to learn the weight, worth, color and music of words, and acquire a moral sense in using them. For sixteen years I published a sermon every week, and often two, written after they were delivered, and it has helped me towards clarity, precision and concision, as well as in all sorts of ways.”6
Every preacher, said Newton, has only one sermon to preach, the story of his heart, the truth made real in his life and vivid in his vision. Emerson, in an address to divinity students, complained that “the soul is not preached.” If that be true, preaching is a failure. When the soul is preached men hear their own souls speak to them in the tones of the preacher, and as Augustine expressed it, “one loving spirit sets another on fire.”For the work of preaching no endowment or training is too high. Yet Newton recognized that the most perfect intellectual equipment is not enough, for, as Aristotle said, “intellect moves nothing.” There must be sympathy that comes from a knowledge of and love for people. “The preacher must live with the people if he is to know their problems and he must live with God if he is to solve them.”7 Above all, the preacher must have a prophetic soul, a power of spiritual perception. Intellect, sympathy, and insight are the secrets of inspired preaching.
Newton defines preaching as persuasion, agreeing with ‘Father’ Taylor, the sailor evangelist, when he said that “It is the business of the preacher to take something hot out of his own heart and shove it into mine.”
Preaching in the New Testament sense is the urgent announcement of a message. The preacher is a herald of God. The ministry of Jesus may be summed up in the phrase, “His Word was with power.” If preaching is persuasion, the person in the pulpit must be utterly persuaded if he is to persuade anyone else. Today, says Newton, the pulpit is so vexed by misgiving that its gospel ceases to be an apostolate and becomes an apology. No eloquence or charm of manner, no homiletic artistry can atone for a lack of a vital inward experience of spiritual reality. The preacher should be the channel of a communication, not the source of it.In the seventh lecture in The New Preaching, Newton uses five words to outline the method of approach to the mind of today: translation, reconciliation, interpretation, explanation, and cooperation.
The truths of faith must be translated into the idiom of today if they are to be real and vivid. There must be reconciliation between the generations, youth and age, the ancient faith and the modern mind. The business of preaching is to interpret the way and the will of God to man. The new preaching must be inductive in its emphasis and approach for an age which has a peculiar bent towards discovery, especially for the presentation of difficult or unpopular truth. The new preaching will not be content with cultivating a private piety. It will be the prophet of public religion, not only social in its insight but international in its aspiration.
In his concluding lecture, Newton divides great preachers into three categories. The first group is made up of poetic seers, like Newman and F. W. Robertson, and in this class Newton himself would be included. The second group consists of the genetic thinkers, the spiritual miners who dig deep and bring new ore to the surface, like Horace Bushnell. The third group is the orators, the masters of assemblies, like Phillips Brooks and Spurgeon.
Newton published eighty-three books in all, many of them collections of sermons, of which Things I Know in Religion is the most representative; biographical studies of David Swing, the poet-preacher, and of Abraham Lincoln; a fine book of pulpit prayers entitled Altar Stairs; and three studies of preachers, Some Living Masters of the Pulpit, Preaching in London and Preaching in New York, which reveal that his chief passion was preaching.
He was critical of his own preaching and confessed to a friend that much of his preaching was too abstract and over the heads of the people. Albert Clare, for many years the church secretary at the City Temple, London, in his history of that historic pulpit supports this view. He writes: “Dr. Newton was scarcely a preacher for the Court of the Gentiles, but rather for those who had themselves made some real progress in the Christian life, and who most of all loved the inner sanctuary. He was far less concerned with intellectual problems and difficulties than with reaffirming the validity of the essential truths of Christianity. His preaching was richly positive, and, if the listener’s personal life was being lived on a high enough level singularly fortifying and inspiring. To the mere objector or scoffer it was in large measure a foreign language.”
Clare goes on to speak of the serenity and poise of Newton’s preaching, which came from a mind that brooded much, and that had in it a deep strain of genuine mysticism. “Many of Dr. Newton’s sermons were little classics of their kind. In the sympathetic hearer’s mind there was a sense of completeness, allied with the feeling that the inner secret of the saying or incident dealt with had been discovered and set free. It was evident that the interpretations given sprang less from intellectual perception than from a deep well of spiritual insight and experience.”8
In his later years Newton changed his style of preaching, making it simpler, full of shrewd practical remarks, and pictures of life as he had himself seen it. As he once said, “The truth of the Gospel must be clearly seen, deeply felt, and dipped and dyed in all the colors of human life, if it is to be made concrete and vivid. This simpler and more appealing manner of writing is to be seen in such a book as his Everyday Religion, which contains a number of brief talks published as a Saturday Sermon for a number of years in the Philadelphia Bulletin.
He used meaningful stories of everyday people — vivid anecdotes and incidents that show how Christian living works in the world today. Based on timeless scriptural truths, these brief messages show how to make each day richer, fuller and more satisfying by living the Christian way, applying Christian attitudes and actions. On the title page are these words, “A faith to live by, a self fit to live with, a work fit to live for, somebody to love and be loved by — these make life.”
One thing that is evident throughout Newton’s many books is his wide reading, of which he makes skillful use. In his autobiography he tells us that the books he read outside the field of theology were the things that did most for his development and lived longest in his heart. “Poetry, fiction, drama, essays, biography fed my soul; here were free spirits who had insight and art — serenity, vision, beauty. As John Morley said, ‘The purpose of wise reading is to bring sunshine into our hearts and to drive moonshine out of our heads’.”9
He expressed his great debt to Emerson, whose serene and luminous spirit was so like his own. Emerson helped Newton to see life and believe in it, to fear God and not be afraid of Him. Newton’s first sermon as an ordained minister was based on the closing words of the eighth chapter of Romans: “I am persuaded … that nothing in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This theme was the keynote of his ministry — the love of God as the origin and end of our life. Many years later, when he was asked to contribute to a symposium entitled “If I had only one sermon to prepare,” he took the same text and pointed out that every preacher has only one sermon to preach, no matter how many texts or topics he may employ; this sermon is the truth nearest to his own heart, “his truth,” the truth central to his faith, although he may use many variations and improvisations of emphasis and appeal.
In the diary Newton kept during his years as minister of the City Temple, published later under the title Preaching in London, there is an interesting entry in which Newton contrasts English with American preaching. “In intellectual average and moral passion there is little difference between English and American preaching, but the emphasis is different. The English preacher seeks to educate and edify his people in the fundamentals of their faith and duty; the American preacher is more intent upon the application of religion to the affairs of the moment. The Englishman goes to church, as to a house of ancient mystery, to forget the turmoil of the world, to be refreshed in spirit, to regain the great backgrounds of life, against which to see the problems of tomorrow. It has been said that the distinctive note of the American pulpit is vitality; of the English pulpit, serenity. In the one more activism, in the other more otherworldliness. Perhaps each has something to learn from the other.”10
Newton was a conservative on most political, social and theological issues, but he had a desire to relate the Christian faith to the ills of man and society. He had compassion for the downtrodden and unbounding love and goodwill for all his fellow-workers of every creed. He sought not to tear down but to build up, not to divide but to harmonize and unite. He believed in personal piety and in social action. He was ecumenical in his approach, deploring the divisions among the denominations. He was impatient with sectarianism, finding it intolerably petty in face of the real facts of the Gospel and the world. He said that the new preaching is concerned “to poise its bright lance against the real enemies of Christ, the unutterable wickedness of war, the organized atheism of so much of our industrial order, and the stupid materialism which imperils its existence, no less than the security, of society. Against racial rancor, religious bigotry and blind greed, it aims its darts with the insight and passion of the prophets of old.”11
Newton’s unwavering conviction was that the first and chief duty of a minister is to preach the Gospel with every art at his command, and with every variety of emphasis and appeal that he can devise. In his letter of acceptance of the invitation to the City Temple he said, “My solitary purpose is to make the Eternal Christ real and vivid to men and women today as a living Redeemer, Companion, and Friend, whose grace is equal to every mortal need and every immortal longing.” His sermons in London were more appreciated than his later ones in Philadelphia and New York. His style was losing favor but he had insight as to the direction that preaching should take. As early as 1930 he was advocating ‘talk-back’ sessions after the sermon and combining social ideals in preaching with a mystical inner faith.
He recognized that the conditions of life today, especially in the crowded loneliness of our great cities, were a challenge to those who would interpret the things of the spirit. The fever and fret of modern life has produced people who lack the mental concentration, if not the capacity, to follow sustained thought. This creates a changed atmosphere for preaching. Newton said that this made expository preaching well-nigh impossible, for it assumed some knowledge of the Bible, in respect of which most of our hearers are ignorant. This means that the preacher of today must win by other arts. “If we are to preach to the motion-picture mind, we must preach in pictures, as Beecher trained himself to do, making his sermons picture-galleries of the Gospel. One day he wished to show our right of boldness of access to God, and wrote an argument to that effect but erased it and painted a picture instead which no one can forget, ‘God is not a thunderstorm to be approached under an umbrella’.”12
Newton pleaded for preaching to be inductive in its emphasis and approach. “In the old days the text was a truth assumed to be true, and the preacher need only to expound its meaning, deduce its lessons and apply them. Often enough a text was a tiny peg from which a vast weight of theology depended, and so long as men accepted both the text and the theology all went well. Of course, the old formula, “The Bible teaches, therefore it is true; the Church affirms, therefore it is valid,” is still sufficient for those who accept such authorities. But in an age of inquiry, when the authority of the Bible and the Church is questioned by so many, such an appeal does not carry conviction.”13 So he pleads with preachers to face the facts and be wise enough to win men on their own terms. If by appealing to the facts of life we can show the truths of faith to be real, we have reestablished the authority of the Bible and the Church.
Newton’s sermons may not appeal to our age because his preaching was noble, stately, rich in beauty and power, suffused with that element of poetry which, according to Samuel Johnson, is “the art of uniting pleasure to truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.” But his conception of preaching does make a powerful appeal. The new preaching which he advocated is to be more simple, direct, human, more artless in its eloquence, and more intimate in its appeal but it proclaims the same Gospel which today as in days gone by, meets the needs and aspirations of men.