Resolved once again about Mr N. . . . It may do good, he will pray for me; his experience may enable him to direct me to new grounds of humiliation . . . it can do no harm, for this is a scandalous objection that keeps occurring to me, that if ever my sentiments change, I shall be ashamed of having done it.  . . . After walking about the Square once or twice before I could persuade myself, I called upon old N. . . . I was much affected in conversing with him. Something very pleasing and unaffected in him . . . on the whole he encouraged me, though I got nothing new from him . . . when I came away, I found my mind in a calm, and looking more devoutly up to God (from William Wilberforce’s journals, dated Friday, December 2, 1785 and Tuesday, December 6, 1785).[1]

Today mentoring has currency. In business, mentors provide constructive feedback, experiential knowledge, networking connections. In school, they raise student confidence, lower anxiety, and increase problem-solving skills. In healthcare, mentors push practitioners to learn, curate their choices, and forward their careers. In so many ways, mentors offer perspective, insider knowledge, accountability, and reassurance. Despite mentoring’s recent renaissance, it is not a new concept. Training and guiding neophytes is as old as parents and children, apprentices and guild masters, privates and generals. The Bible is replete with mentoring relationships such as Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and Peter. Church history also reveals famous mentorships from the first century to the twenty-first: Perpetua and Felicitas, Ambrose and Augustine, Bill Bright and Joon Gon Kim.

Even successful mentoring relationships often begin tentatively. As Wilberforce’s journal entry from December 1785 attests, he debated internally about whether or not to talk with John Newton. Between his December 2 “scandalous objection” and his December 6 “walking about the Square,” Wilberforce composed a letter “which he delivered to Newton at his church”[2].  In it, Wilberforce wrote: “I wish to have some serious conversation with you, . . . that. . . must be secret . . . [because] the face of a member of Parliament is pretty well known.”[3] Five days after their December 5 meeting, Wilberforce seemed less worried about public opinion, for he sat under Newton’s teaching, while acknowledging that “[I] felt sometimes moved at church, but I am still callous.”[4] At this point, almost in spite of himself, Wilberforce’s journal entries begin to recognize Newton’s mentorship. After he reads the copy of Newton’s autobiography that he received on their first meeting, the new convert opines, “Oh, may I be prevented from relapse.”[5] A week and a day later, he feels even bolder, granting Newton “leave to mention my case [his conversion] to my aunt [Hannah Thornton Wilberforce] and Mr. Thornton [John Thornton, Hannah’s brother]”, adding, “I trust God is with me, but he must every keep beside me, for I fall the moment I am left to myself.”[6]

Current mentoring wisdom says that while adult mentors should conscript youth as mentees, when both parties are adults, the best mentorship relationships occur when the mentee initiates the pairing. Wilberforce certainly was the initiator for the mentor-mentee pairing that begin in the winter in 1785 and lasted until Newton’s death twenty-two years later. In some ways, Wilberforce and Newton were two unlikely partners. Thirty-four years (and 20 days) apart in age, and even farther apart in economic and social status, their commitment to Jesus and his kingdom created a bond strong enough to transform not only these two men but also all of British history.

Unlike his reluctant mentee, Newton was a willing mentor. The crusty cleric whom Wilberforce approached that winter had lived a checkered life—from protected ship captain’s child to impressed sailor, from abused servant to slave ship captain, from customs inspector to lay preacher, and finally from Bible teacher to Anglican curate. Newton owed much of his growth to Christian community. People like William Cowper and John Thornton, Alexander Clunie and Hannah More, William Carey and Lord Dartmouth were among Newton’s friends and partners. Newton encouraged young believers from all walks of life, but William Wilberforce held a special fascination for this rector of St. Mary Woolnoth (London). Fourteen years before their December 6 meeting, Wilberforce had attended services at Newton’s St. Peter and Paul’s Church in Olney. At that time, 1l-year-old Wilberforce was living with his uncle and aunt (an older William Wilberforce and his wife Hannah Thornton Wilberforce) and still grieving the loss of his father less than two years before. As Newton remembered, the frail little boy exuded spiritual responsiveness to his minister’s words. Any stronger connection between pastor and parishioner had ended abruptly, however, when William’s mother recalled her son home, alarmed that he was evidencing signs of “Methodism.”

Newton did not forget Wilberforce. In fact, he wrote to Hannah Wilberforce in 1774, stating: “I beg to be remembered likewise to Master Wilberforce when you see him.”[7] Six years after that letter, Newton was installed St. Mary Woolnuth and enjoyed dining at Clapham with Hannah Wilberforce and her brother John Thornton. The younger Wilberforce’s recent campaign for the Hull seat in the House of Commons (which Wilberforce won the following month) would have naturally been a topic of conversation.[8] Also, during their critical meeting in December 1785, Wilberforce learned that Newton “had always hopes and confidence that God would sometime bring me [Wilberforce] to him.”[9]

Perhaps Wilberforce perceived his initial meeting with Newton as “calming”[10] because his former pastor had been praying about such a meeting for over a decade. Unfortunately for researchers, many of Wilberforce’s critical journals entries from this first year of mentorship are missing. We would like to know more about what else the two men discussed, which scriptures Newton exegeted, and how exactly he counseled his new friend. Much of what we do know about these early encounters derives from the stories that Wilberforce’s first biographers, his sons Robert and Samuel, passed on. They report that, during these first weeks, Newton gave Wilberforce sound and history-making advice. With his shaky faith and somewhat-rakish reputation, the newly-converted MP, who was by this time representing Yorkshire (a more prestigious locale than Hull), was considering leaving Parliament and becoming a minister. Sharing stories about his own early questioning of God’s directions and call, Newton dissuaded Wilberforce from his ministry plan and suggested that Wilberforce’s serving in Parliament reflected God’s sovereign plan.

How much the two discussed the slave trade and its abolition is unknown. We do know that Newton’s biography (which, as noted earlier, Wilberforce began reading immediately) would have highlighted the issue. In it, Wilberforce read not only about his mentor’s conversion but also about how its evils still haunted him. In addition, according to Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, Newton could never talk for more than a few minutes[11] without referencing the horror of his former occupation, lamenting his complicity in its atrocities. At the very least, Newton’s obsession with the trade prepared Wilberforce to be favorable when, in 1787, Thomas Clarkson proposed abolition as a worthy focus for the MP’s talents.

Even though Wilberforce’s extant journal entries from December 1785 to October 1787 prove sporadic, we know that Newton and he dined together several times and that Wilberforce frequented Newton’s church. We learn a bit more about their relationship through Newton’s letters. On December 22, 1785 Newton remarks that Wilberforce’s eyes are not well and invites him to visit the following Saturday. Reading between the lines from an undated note from 1786, we see that Wilberforce suggested he was taking too much of Newton’s time. Allaying this worry, the minister-mentor responded, “The Lord has given me many friends . . . and methinks as much room for you, as if you were one. . . The Lord bless you, My Dear Sir.”[12]

Wilberforce must have found many aspects of his new faith challenging. Steeped in the scriptures, it is not surprising that as his mentor, Newton sought to reassure his mentee and build up his courage. In his letters, Newton likened Wilberforce’s trials and aspirations to those Old Testament figures experienced, especially those leaders who, while working for secular governments, still honored God. On May 18, 1786, Newton regrets that he will not be at Clapham (where Wilberforce now resided) as planned, adding: “My heart is with you. May the wisdom that influences Joseph and Moses, and Daniel rest upon you. Not only to guide and animate you in the line of political duty—but especially to keep you [in]. . . the habit of dependence upon God, and communion with him.”[13]

Wilberforce followed Newton’s advice. By depending on God and communing with him, the young leader did hear God’s clear direction. In a late 1787 journal entry (October 28), Wilberforce outlined the vision that God has given him. Just as Daniel purposed himself to stand faithful to God in a foreign land, Wilberforce famously recognized the divine calling on his life: “God, God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”[14] With such challenging goals, he had no time to lose.

The mentor and mentee sprang into action. In 1787 Newton helped Wilberforce found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (aka. the Anti-Slavery Society). In 1788, in response in part to Wilberforce’s prompting, Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, providing an eyewitness account of the horrors of the trade. This pamphlet sold out immediately, and, after its second printing, anti-slavery campaigners ensured that every member of Parliament received a personal copy. Newton also reinforced his words by testifying against slavery both during parliamentary hearings and before a meeting of the Privy Council. Here the mentor and mentee learned from each other, engaging in political battle and making use of everything within their power to counteract lies about “benevolent masters” that were serving to perpetuate slavery and its brutalities.

Starting in 1787, Wilberforce repeatedly offered an abolition bill before Parliament, debating with vigor, marshalling the evidence his Clapham colleagues amassed, enduring insults and even death threats in pursuit of his one goal. Newton and Wilberforce continued their mentoring relationship throughout these busy years. Reading Wilberforce’s journal, we see how the MP’s times with “old Newton” mitigated the difficulties inherent in this unrelenting quest.

Newton was a prayer warrior, and Wilberforce’s precarious health often called his mentor into action. In 1788, Newton wrote Wilberforce saying, “The desires and opportunities the Lord has given you of seeking to promote the political, moral, and religious welfare of the Kingdom have given me a pleasing persuasion that He was raised you up, and will preserve you to be a blessing to the public.”[15] Newton went on to emphasize God’s sovereignty in the struggles that Wilberforce was facing. Rather than being a sign of God’s displeasure, Newton saw these difficulties as, in Peter expressed in his first epistle, to be “tokens of the Lord’s love . . . [signs that] you will come out of the furnace, refined like gold” (1:18).

As Wilberforce endured one defeat after another, Newton recognized this his mentee needed encouragement and perspective. In Newton’s eyes, Wilberforce increasingly mirrored one particular Old Testament figure, the prophet Daniel. Writing in 1793, Newton’s exhortations to Wilberforce began with a discussion of Mary and Martha (Luke 10), but quickly moved to lessons from Daniel 3 and 6: “They who have the honour [sic] of living for public must submit to live less for themselves . . . The Lord is able to keep those who trust him, though they live in the fire or in a den of lions, if they are there by his appointment.”[16] Two years later, Newton again references Daniel in writing, “You are in your appointed post, and the Lord supports you in it. You live like the young men and Daniel in Babylon . . .  persevering in the midst of flames and lions because the Lord is with you.[17] Clearly, Newton believed that just as God raised up Daniel to stand for truth in the godless courts of Babylon and Persia, so Wilberforce must stand uncompromisingly for abolition, trusting God’s protection alone for his reputation and his life.

Just one year later, Wilberforce found himself in an even more serious crisis. At this key juncture, the counsel of mentor Newton proved life-altering. Having lobbied unsuccessfully for abolition for almost a decade, Wilberforce had begun to lose hope. His most recent defeat (on March 15, 1796) was particularly discouraging, for it both resulted from trickery and evidenced the lack of serious commitment to the cause that many parliamentarians evidenced. After hiding the fact that an abolition vote was at hand, the pro-slavery coalition in the House of Commons handed out free tickets to hear Vignoni, a now-forgotten Italian singer, in the new comic opera, I Dui Gobi. While the audience enjoyed this London show, the schemers called for an immediate vote on the abolition bill, leading to a narrow defeat (74 to 70).

Wilberforce despaired. Never strong, he had worked himself into dangerous exhaustion. Plagued with chronic colitis, extreme scoliosis, and unintentional laudanum dependence, Wilberforce seemed near death. Even when he began to recover, he still questioned if continued abolition efforts were worthwhile. How long could he shoulder slander and threats, loneliness and rejection? In addition, an impending war with France overshadowed the issues he championed. Perhaps these roadblocks indicated that the time had come for his retirement from politics.

Newton’s response, in a letter written on July 21, 1786, directly confronted his despondent mentee. With wisdom and eloquence, combining argument and encouragement, Newton spoke comfort and confidence into Wilberforce’s despair:

My very dear Sir . . .you have no claim to my pity, though you have a just right to my prayers, and a frequent place in them. Because I believe you are the Lord’s servant and are in the post which He has assigned you . . .I know that He who called you to it, can afford you strength according to your day, and I trust He will, for He is faithful . . . though you cannot do all the good you wish for, some good is done, and some evil is probably prevented,. . .You are not only a Representative for Yorkshire. You have the far greater honour [sic] of being a Representative for the Lord, in a place where many know him not . . . you have not laboured [sic] in vain. It is true, that you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But since you know both your need of help and where to look for it, I may say to you, as Darius to Daniel, “Thy God whom thou servest continually is able to preserve and deliver you.” Daniel likewise was a public man, and in critical circumstances. But he trusted in the Lord, was faithful in his departments, and therefore though he had enemies, they could not prevail against him . . . May the Lord bless you my dear Sir. May he be your sun and shield – and fill you with all joy and peace in believing. I am, Your very affectionate and much obliged, John Newton[18]

Wilberforce listened to his mentor. If both Daniel and Old Newton could keep fighting, so could Wilberforce. And even though the fight would take another ten and a half years, he never felt quite as low again. Less than three years later, Wilberforce met Barbara Spooner and married her in a mere 45 days later. Over time, these two had two six children and together created a boisterous and welcoming household.  Supported by both friends and family, the “British Daniel” accepted God’s calling and saw the fight through to the end.

Wilberforce and Newton grew even closer over the next ten years while the Parliamentarian continued his fight against slavery. Through letters and face-to-face meetings, they shared scriptural truths and book recommendations. Their correspondence was varied—covering topics from prison reform to marriage, political affairs to missionary progress, friendship to physical needs. Often Newton reminded Wilberforce of the promise in Psalm 84:11: “For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.[19] The truth Newton had underscored in his July 21, 1796 letter was one that Wilberforce needed reiterated: God protects and enables his willing servants.[20]

During the middle years of their mentor-mentee relationship, Newton had become concerned that his letters stole too much time from Wilberforce’s important responsibilities. Wilberforce disagreed, so Newton countered with a compromise, suggesting, “I seem determined to wait upon [you] with a letter, without ceremony or apology about once a quarter. . . .”[21] Written, as promised, four times a year, these “quarterlies” offered Wilberforce truths that Newton hoped would underscore “the power, presence and promises of God, and support you in every trial to which He may see fit to call you.”[22]

As time passed, Newton reflected on how his death would eventually end this special mentoring relationship. In a quarterly written in 1797, Newton grows pensive—comparing his life to waves of the sea, recalling friends who have died, and particularly longing for heaven, where he would reunite with his wife and adopted daughter, “my dear Mary and Eliza.”[23] Now 72, Newton, in reality, still had ten more years to live. Still, he knew that he would not see the completion of all his hopes for his country. No wonder, he was delighted with Wilberforce’s publication of A Practical View of Christianity. Newton saw Wilberforce’s book as a direct answer to prayer, a proof that his mentee grasped his responsibility for evangelism. Six years earlier, in promising Wilberforce “a double portion of my thoughts and prayers,”[24] Newton had compared his mentoring of Wilberforce to the relationship between Elijah and Elisha. Three years later, Newton shared with Wilberforce his hope that the mentee would one day possess a “double portion” of his mentor’s spirt.[25] At last, Newton recognized the mantle was being passed.

After ten more years of struggle, on February 23, 1807, the British House of Commons, voted overwhelmingly to end the slave trade. And, on May 1, 1807, the trade was declared illegal throughout the British Empire. On December 21 of that year, Newton died: he had succeeded as mentor and friend. This British Elijah had passed the mantle.[26] Partnering with a second and third generation of abolitionists, Wilberforce would continue the fight for the end of slavery itself and not just of the trade. These efforts culminated in the passing of an abolition bill in Commons on July 22, 1833, just a week before Wilberforce’s death. By August 1, 1834, their legislation extended to the entire British Empire.

Through almost twenty-two years of conversations, prayers, and letters, Newton and Wilberforce built a powerful mentor-mentee relationship. With their partnership, God furthered his purposes for a nation and an era. Newton was correct. God is in the business of raising up Daniels, and he does so in community. We need this lesson as much in our day as Newton and Wilberforce did over two hundred years ago.

[1] William Wilberforce, William Wilberforce; His Unpublished Journals, ed. Michael D. McMullen (Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2021), Dec. 6, 1785, 59-61. Note: Wilberforce wrote the December 6 journal entry the day after he met with Newton. Until McMullen’s work was published, scholars used the five-volume (1-5) biography by Wilberforce’s two sons as source for their father’s journal entries (Robert Isaac Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 1838). The newer McMillen work offers a more complete (and arguably less biased) collection of the Parliamentarian’s words. (Still, at times, the Wilberforce sons refer to journal entries that are not yet available to researchers. In those cases, I defer to the five-volume Life).

[2] R. and S. Wilberforce, Life, vol. 1, 95.

[3] R. and S. Wilberforce, Life, vol. 1, 96-97.

[4] Wilberforce, Journals, Dec. 11, 1785, 62.

[5] Wilberforce, Journals, Dec. 13, 1785, 62.

[6] Wilberforce, Journals, Dec. 21, 1785, 63.

[7] MS Wilberforce c49 ff112-123, 25 November 1774. This citation reflects the numbering employed by the Bodleian Library (where many of Newton’s letters are stored), Oxford University, Great Britain. (When I use a letter from this location in the remainder of my article, I will designate that letter using the Bodleian numbering system but without any additional mention of the library or its location.)

Researchers owe a debt to Marylynn Rouse and the organization she heads, the John Newton Project ( The Project has made many of Newton’s letters available online. The mission of the John Newton Project is “the transformation of society through faith in Jesus Christ, using the life and works of John Newton as one example.”

[8]129 letters from the Rev. John Newton, Rector of St Mary Woolnuth to Rev William Bull of Newport Pagnell, 1947, Sept. 25, 1780, 100.

[9] Wilberforce, Journals, Dec. 6, 1785, 61.

[10] Wilberforce, Journals, Dec. 6, 1785, 61.

[11] R. and S. Wilberforce, Life, vol. 1, 97.  The book Newton gave to Wilberforce was the former slave ship captain’s epistolary autobiography, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton, Communicated in a Series of Letters to Mr. Haweis (1765).

At this juncture, I also want to mention Rouse’s helpful article on Newton and Wilberforce: Marylynn Rouse, “A Double Portion of my Thoughts and Prayers: John Newton’s Letters to William Wilberforce,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 17.2 (2018):15-41.

[12] Letter No. 6: Undated letter [1786], The John Newton Project, (All the John Newton Project letters that I reference come from this same address, varying only as to their number. Therefore, in future citations, I will designate each citation by the relevant letter number.)

[13] Letter No. 8: May 5, 1786, The John Newton Project. (Although researchers still could wish more examples of Newton and Wilberforce’s correspondence, the work of the Newton Project affords the chance to hear Newton’s counsel as he mentored and encouraged his beloved Wilberforce. In the years to come, this database will grow.)

[14] Wilberforce, Journals, Oct. 28, 1785, 83.

[15] MS Wilberforce c49 f16, 1788. (See also f104, 15 September 1800 for similar themes.)

[16] MS Wilberforce c49 ff47-48, 30 August 17or 3.

[17] MS Wilberforce c49 ff62-63, 4 July 1795.

[18] On this Day: Newton urged Wilberforce to keep going: 21 July 1796,” The Christian Institute, July 2011, (As part of their article, the Christian Institute provides the entire text of Newton’s life-transforming letter.)

[19] Authorized Version, King James Bible, 1611.

[20] MS Wilberforce c49 f11, 1 November 1786, f29-30, 1 July 1789.

[21] MS Wilberforce c49 ff37-38, 3 January 1792.

[22] MS Wilberforce c49 ff37-38, 3 January 1792.

[23] MS Wilberforce c49 ff75-76, 30 March 1797.

[24] MS Wilberforce c49 f34, 10 June 1971. (See 2 Kings 2:9 for Elisha’s prayer for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.)

[25] MS Wilberforce c49 ff50-51, 19 June 1974.

[26] At least in the privacy of his home, Wilberforce has accepted the mantle from Newton, both for the proclamation of the gospel and for the abolition of slavery. Wilberforce’s journal entry dated January 1, 1808 includes this prayer: “give me a large measure of Thy Spirit.” S. and R. Wilberforce, Life, vol. 3, 355.

Karen has worked in Christian education since 1976, as teacher, board member, administrator, and consultant. As an Associate Mentor at Linden Grove Ministries, she is committed to building Christ’s church, one Christian leader at a time. She also currently serves at The Wilberforce School, where she enjoys sharing stories about Wilberforce and Newton.

Meet Karen