Church History

When good friends dream big for the gospel: Newton, Wilberforce & Johnson

In the mid-1780s John Newton, the celebrated slave-trader turned preacher, became re-acquainted with one William Wilberforce, a young MP who had recently become an Evangelical. It was the start of a remarkable partnership.[i]

1786 saw their first great project. The British Government had announced plans to establish a convict colony at Botany Bay in New South Wales. Newton had been thinking about mission to ‘the South Seas’ for a long time. Nearly a decade prior, he had written in his journal –

My leisure time and rather more than I can well spare taken up with reading the accounts of the late voyage of Capt. Cook in the Southern Ocean and round the Globe… May I be suitably affected with the case of the countless thousands of my fellow creatures, who know thee not, nor have opportunities of knowing thee…Lord hast thou not a time for these poor benighted souls, when thou wilt arise and shine upon them? [ii]


Wilberforce was soon a keen supporter of the chaplaincy idea. He even suggested it to the Prime Minister. When the colonial plan was finalized in August 1786, the PM wrote to Wilberforce –

The colony for Botany Bay will be much indebted to you for your assistance in providing a chaplain… if you can find such a clergyman as you mention we shall be very glad of it; but it must be soon.[iii]


But who to send? The name “Richard Johnson” would have suggested itself fairly early. He was a young, enthusiastic clergyman serving in London, well known to Newton and Wilberforce and a firm Evangelical.

Wilberforce must have sent a hasty letter to Newton upon receiving confirmation of the position, for the same day Newton himself approached Johnson. Johnson recalled –

On the evening of the 23rd of September, 1786, I was asked by a friend if I had got the spirit of a missionary? Or if I wished to go abroad? I smiled and replied that I had no inclinations or thoughts of ever leaving my native country.[iv]

On the 30th, Johnson also received a letter from Wilberforce encouraging him to go.

These approaches affected Johnson deeply – he lost his appetite and struggled to sleep. He was well aware of the hazards of such an expedition, and they terrified him. Meanwhile his friends awaited his decision. As Newton wrote –

Oh! If Johnson is the man whom the Lord appoints to the honour of being the first to carry the glad tidings into the Southern Hemisphere, he will be a great and honoured man indeed! Let the world admire Columbus, Drake and Cook, Johnson in my view will be unspeakably superior to them all.[v]


In time, the higher calling won out over Johnson’s fears –

…when I considered the propriety, nay, the necessity of some person going out in that capacity… the hopes and prospects of being rendered useful in the reformation of those poor and abandoned people… These considerations over balanced and removed all my scruples and fears and induced me to give my free consent to enter upon this hazardous expedition.[vi]

When Johnson departed with the First Fleet on May 13th, 1787, he took with him the missionary aspirations of London’s Evangelicals. They had found their man to preach the gospel to the indigenous people of the South Seas as well as the transported convicts. [vii] Newton even wrote a heroic little poem to mark the occasion.

But it was not the last time Newton would write to encourage Johnson. A few years later, he sent a despondent Johnson the following note –

You will have the honor of being the first Apostle to the South Seas, but I think you will have no objection that others should be sent to take a share in your labours.

You are sent to lay the foundation upon which others will build; and it will be more clearly seen by posterity than at present that the Lord directed you by His counsel, and upheld you by His arm of power – that He appointed you to the honor of opening a plan, which He, in His due time, will accomplish.[viii]


There was no poem this time, no promise of glory and triumph, just the solemn realisation that Johnson and his successors would face danger and deprivation beyond what most of their colleagues could bear, for little earthly gain.

And yet, for the sake of the gospel and Christ’s glory, still they went.

This is an edited extract from a paper first presented at the Moore College Library day in 2013. It was subsequently published in “Launching Marsden’s Mission” (Latimer Trust, 2014).

[i] E.g. NSW chaplaincy; Sierra Leone Company; CMS; The Christian Observer.

[ii] John Newton Diary, Princeton University, CO199, 8 July 1777. Courtesy of Marylynn Rouse of “The John Newton Project”.

[iii] Pitt to Wilberforce, September 23, 1786. Wilberforce Papers, 16-17.

[iv] Johnson Papers, Australian Joint Copying Project, Miscellaneous Series, reel M677: Lambeth Palace Library MS Arch/p/Moore 22. p.1.

[v] Newton, Letters, p.220.

[vi] Johnson Papers, p.2.

[vii] Venn, H. and Venn, J. 1834. The life and a selection from the letters of Henry Venn. London: Hatchard, p.439-440.

[viii] HRNSW, v.2, p.27.

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