The phrase "habitual tenderness" is Newton's own phrase to describe the way a believer should live. In writing to a friend he describes the believer's life: "He believes and feels his own weakness and unworthiness, and lives upon the grace and pardoning love of his Lord. This gives him an habitual tenderness and gentleness of spirit." It is plain already what some of the roots of tenderness are in that sentence, but before we look at them more closely let's get some snapshots of this man's "habitual tenderness." Richard Cecil said, "Mr. Newton could live no longer than he could love." His love to people was the signature of his life. This was true of groups of people and individual people. He loved perishing people and he loved his own flock of redeemed people.
Whoever . . . has tasted of the love Christ, and has known, by his own experience, the need and the worth of redemption, is enabled, Yea, he is constrained, to love his fellow creatures. He loves them at first sight; and, if the providence of God commits a dispensation of the gospel, and care of souls to him, he will feel the warmest emotions of friendship and tenderness, while he beseeches them by the tender mercies of God, and even while he warns them by his terrors.
It's the phrase "at first sight" that stands out in this quote. Newton's first reflex was to love lost people. When he speaks to unbelievers he speaks like this:
A well-wisher to your soul assures you, that whether you know these things or not, they are important realities. . . . Oh hear the warning voice! Flee from the wrath to come. Pray thee that the eyes of your mind may be opened, then you will see your danger, and gladly follow the shining light of the Word.
One clear mark of Christlike tenderness is love for children. "Suffer the little children to come to me and do not hinder them" (Mark 10:14) is the badge of tenderness that Jesus wore. When Newton came to Olney one of the first things he did was begin a meeting for children on Thursday afternoons. He met with them himself and gave them assignments and spoke to them from the Bible. At one point he said, "I suppose I have 200 that will constantly attend." And what made it more remarkable to his parishioners was that the meetings were open to all the children, not just the members of his church. Josiah Bull said, "The young especially had a warm place in his affectionate heart. . . . Mr. Jay . . . relates that once a little sailor-boy with his father called on Mr. Newton. He took the boy between his knees, told him that he had been much at sea himself, and then sang him part of a naval song." For forty-three years his two flocks had an especially tender place in his heart. Richard Cecil said that Newton's preaching was often not well prepared, nor careful or "graceful" in delivery. But, he said, "He possessed . . . so much affection for his people, and so much zeal for their best interests, that the defect of his manner was little consideration with his constant hearers." Once he complained in a letter of his busyness: "I have seldom one-hour free from interruption. Letters, that must be answered, visitants that must be received, business that must be attended to. I have a good many sheep and lambs to look after, sick and afflicted souls dear to the Lord; and therefore, whatever stands still, these must not be neglected."
Newton's tenderness touched individuals as well as groups. The most remarkable instance of this was, of course, William Cowper, the mentally-ill poet and hymn writer who came to live in Olney during 12 of Newton's 16 years there. Newton took Cowper into his home for five months during one season and 14 months during another when he was so depressed it was hard for him to function alone. In fact, Richard Cecil said that over Newton's whole lifetime, "His house was an asylum for the perplexed or afflicted." Newton says of Cowper's stay: "For nearly 12 years we were seldom separated for seven hours at a time, when we were awake, and at home: the first six I passed daily admiring and aiming to imitate him: during the second six, I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death."
When Cowper's brother died in 1770, Newton resolved to help him by collaborating with him in writing hymns for the church. These came to be known as "The Olney Hymns." But soon Cowper was emotionally unable to carry through his part of the plan. Newton pressed on writing one hymn a week without Cowper until there were well over 300. Sixty-seven are attributed to William Cowper. The last hymn that Cowper composed for the Olney Hymns was "God Moves in a Mysterious Way," which he entitled "Light Shining out of Darkness." The next day, in January 1773, he sank into the blackest depression and never went to hear Newton preach again. Newton preached his funeral sermon seven years later and explained what happened and how he responded.
He drank tea with me in the afternoon. The next morning a violent storm overtook him. . . . I used to visit him often but no argument could prevail with him to come and see me. He used to point with his finger to the church and say: "You know the comfort I have had there and how I have seen the glory of the Lord in His house, and until I go there I'll not go anywhere else." He was one of those who came out of great tribulations. He suffered much here for twenty-seven years, but eternity is long enough to make amends for all. For what is all he endured in this life, when compared with the rest which remaineth for the children of God.
What would most of us have done with a depressed person who could scarcely move out of his house? William Jay summed up Newton's response: "He had the tenderest disposition; and always judiciously regarded his friend's depression and despondency as a physical effect, for the removal of which he prayed, but never reasoned or argued with him concerning it."
Another example of his tenderness toward an individual is the case of the missionary, Henry Martyn. The young Martyn was very discouraged from some criticism he had received of his "insipid and inanimate manner in the pulpit." He came to Newton, who blocked every one of Martyn's discouragements with hope. Martyn wrote in his journal (April 25, 1805) that when Newton heard of the criticism he had received,
He said he had heard of a clever gardener, who would sow seeds when the meat was put down to roast, and engage to produce a salad by the time it was ready, but the Lord did not sow oaks in this way. On my saying that perhaps I should never live to see much fruit; he answered I should have the birds-eye view of it, which would be much better. When I spoke of the opposition that I should be likely to meet with, he said, he supposed Satan would not love me for what I was about to do. The old man prayed afterwards with sweet simplicity.
If there were time we could linger over another instance of remarkable patience and tenderness toward Thomas Scott, who was a liberal, "almost Socinian" clergyman in a neighboring parish. Scott made jest of Newton's evangelical convictions. But in the end Newton's mingling of hope-filled truth and kindness broke Scott's oppostion. Scott commented later: "Under discouraging circumstances, I had occasion to call upon him; and his discourse so comforted and edified me, that my heart, being by this means relieved from its burden, became susceptible of affection for him." Scott was personally and theologically transformed and wrote a book called The Force of Truth and became the minister in Olney when Newton left.
(The second of several excerpts from a lecture for pastors by John Piper; the full text and audio can be found here.)