John Newton, the slave-trade ship captain turned pastor and hymn-writer, wasn't exactly a blogger. Many of his writings, however, fit in the category of we today would call blogging. He wrote mostly letters — small, topically oriented and experience-based pieces — and he became increasingly aware those letters would be published for a wider audience. When you pick up a copy of his published letters and begin reading, they remind today’s reader of the blog style many Christians find edifying.
Here are 15 lessons from John Newton on letter-writing that will serve blog writers (all quotes taken from The Works of John Newton, 6-volumes).
1. Bloggers should write to learn, to meditate, and to remember. "I think you would likewise find advantage in using your pen more: write short notes upon the Scriptures you read, or transcribe the labors of others; make extracts from your favorite authors, especially those who, besides a fund of spiritual and evangelical matter, have a happy talent of expressing their thoughts in a clear and lively manner: you would find a continued exercise in this way would be greatly useful to form your own style, and help your delivery and memory" (2:76–77).
2. Bloggers should write to edify, therefore it is preferable to write simple truth than to spread eloquent trifles. "Language and style, however, are but the dress. Trifles, however adorned, are trifles still. A person of spiritual discernment would rather be the author of one page written in the humble garb of Bunyan, upon a serious subject, than to be able to rival the sprightliness and elegance of Lady M. W. Montague, unless it could be with a view to edification" (2:16–17).
3. Bloggers should expect the well to run dry at times, and understand some of the personal factors that explain this barrenness. "My silence has been sometimes owing to want of leisure; and sometimes when I could have found leisure, my harp has been out of tune, and I had no heart to write. Perhaps you are ready to infer, by my sitting down to write at last, that my harp is now well tuned, and I have something extraordinary to offer: beware of thinking so, lest you should be sadly disappointed" (2:206).
4. Women should be encouraged to blog for the benefit of the entire church, since they naturally write in a style more enjoyable, and less stilted, than men are normally capable of. "I have often wished we had more female pens employed in the service of the sanctuary. . . . In the article of essay writing, I think many are qualified to succeed better than most men, having a peculiar easiness of style, which few of us can imitate" (2:16).
5. Magnify Christ in what you write. "I trust my pen is chiefly devoted to the praise of Jesus your beloved, and so far as I succeed, I am sure what I write will be acceptable to you" (6:349).
6. Blog to offer both converting and comforting grace to your reader. "Oh, that my heart may take fire as I write! Surely I am in my better judgment persuaded, that life is not worth a desire, but as affording opportunity to spread the savor of his name, to set him forth in my ministry, for the comfort of his people and the salvation of poor sinners" (6:153–154).
7. Make it your constant aim to blog with the intent of prospering your reader in God. "The hour is approaching, and, at my time of life, cannot be very distant, when my heart, my pen, and my tongue, will no longer be able to move in their service. But I trust, while my heart continues to beat, it will feel a warm desire for the prosperity of souls; and while my hand can write, and my tongue speak, it will be the business and the pleasure of my life, to aim at promoting their growth and establishment in the grace of our God and Savior" (3:304–305).
8. Be extra careful when handling controversy on your blog, and if you do engage it, know that it carries with it extra responsibilities, first in the tone of how you write, secondly in requiring you to sincerely pray for your opponent(s) before you engage them, and thirdly in requiring that you address your opponent as one who has an eternal soul, and who will either be lost forever, or as one that will be your brother or sister in heaven for all eternity. "I shall, however, keep you particularly in my eye while I write, that a just sense of the candor and affection with which you have always treated me, may regulate my pen, and preserve me (if possible) from that harsh and angry spirit, into which writers upon controversial points are too often betrayed" (5:3). “As to your opponent, I wish, that, before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing” (1:268–269).
9. Bloggers should aim to write from personal experience. "To be affecting and useful, they [essays] must be dictated rather by the heart than by the head; and are most likely to influence others, when they are the fruits and transcripts of our own experience" (2:17).
10. Bloggers should also write from their observations of others. "The knowledge I have of what passes there, I have gained more from observation than from actual experience" (1:226).
11. Learn to blog your observations more freely, especially if you are bent towards a stilted formalism. "I wish you not only to write a good hand, but a good letter; and the whole art is to write with freedom and ease. When you take your pen in hand, pop things down just as they come to your mind; just as you would speak of them without study" (6:304).
12. Blog humbly and in faith, knowing the Lord will lead you to offer a “word in season” for your readers in their time of need. "I love to give up my heart and pen, without study, when I am writing. The Lord knows the state of my friends, their present temptations, etc and I look to him to give me a word in season" (6:42).
13. Pray that God would fill your soul with divine joy as you write, that this joy would be communicated on the screen, resulting in a shared joy with your reader. "Oh! that the power of God would set my heart and pen at liberty while writing, and fill your hearts while reading, that we may rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory" (6:18).
14. Do not allow blog writing to cause your neglect of family priorities. "I have been interrupted since I began my letter, and I must leave it again soon to go to my children, for it is almost eleven" (6:267).
15. Redeem your barren blogging experiences, use them to see your needs and weaknesses, and lean upon God for his sustaining and supplying grace. "Though my pen and my tongue sometimes move freely, yet the total incapacity and stagnation of thought I labor under at other times, convinces me, that in myself I have not sufficiency to think a good thought; and I believe the case would be the same, if that little measure of knowledge and abilities, which I am too prone to look upon as my own, were a thousand times greater than it is. For every new service, I stand in need of a new supply, and can bring forth nothing of my supposed store into actual exercise, but by his immediate assistance" (1:506).
There are many other lessons for bloggers from the writings of the eminent letter-writer, John Newton. These 15 lessons have been gleaned from my own time in his writings, and perhaps that’s the best way to learn from Newton.
Take up Newton’s letters for yourself (like this volume), read of his pastoral heart for others, and catch the loving tones with which he addresses his reader.