Few followers of the Lamb have ever done more to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and help all that suffer adversity; and to spread the savor of the knowledge of Christ crucified.

Henry Venn, friend of John Thornton

A Forgotten Man

You would have a difficult time finding the name John Thornton in a history book; and yet he was a man who shaped the world of the eighteenth century. Little is known about his early life, except that in 1720 he was born the son of a prominent merchant. At the age of thirty-three, Thornton married Lucy Watson. The couple had four children.

Upon reaching adulthood, Thornton chose to bypass college and pursue a career in international trade. When he set out in life, he did so with a massive inheritance of £100,000, an amount today worth upwards of $25 million. As impressive as this wealth was, Thornton’s success in trade rapidly expanded this already sizeable fortune. He went on to become the richest merchant in England, and the second richest in all of Europe.

Given his prominent status in society, the name “John Thornton” quickly spread throughout England. Although people were familiar with Thornton’s wealth, those who knew him personally were more impressed by another characteristic: his generosity. A popular magazine of Thornton’s day wrote that his generosity “transcended belief and reached even the remotest parts of the globe.” While nobody knows for certain just how much Thornton gave away, he typically disposed half of his income to various causes. He maintained a strict frugality in his personal expenses, and despite having the means, took no pleasure in lavishing himself with the luxuries of the day. In the truest sense of the word, John Thornton was a humble man.

Thornton’s conviction for generosity was a rather uncommon one for his day. It became apparent that he, compared with other members of England’s upper-classes, was far more liberal in his giving habits.

For Thornton, generosity wasn’t optional

It stemmed from his Christian faith, and his conviction was that every pound demanded a calculated stewardship. An acquaintance noted how Thornton was always looking throughout England to see whom he could help.

Thornton's Impact on the Church

Churches in England were littered with problems during Thornton’s time. Most who filled the pews never encountered the God of the Bible nor His gospel. Typically, a church was controlled by the wealthy patrons of the congregation who paid to fill the pulpit with their desired preacher. Many of these preachers were more interested in earning a decent wage than in doing the work of God. Accordingly, few truly preached Christ. Thornton, however, sought to reform the church. He longed to see the pulpits of England filled with heralds of the gospel.

At one point, Thornton was personally financing the salaries of eleven pastors in order that churches would hear the true gospel. Often times, he would take these faithful pastors on all-expenses paid vacations for a time of rest and fellowship. One of these men was the infamous slave-trader-turned-pastor John Newton.

Partnership in the Work of the Gospel

In 1765, Newton released his autobiography An Authentic Narrative. It became a best-seller, and his testimony of God’s grace found its way onto bookshelves across the nation. Thornton read the book and was immediately struck by Newton. Clearly, Thornton thought, this was a man of God.

Over the next several years, Newton and Thornton formed a rich friendship. They wrote hundreds of letters to one another in which they gave encouragement, confessed sin, and exchanged prayer requests. Above all, their letters expressed a mutual desire to see more souls converted to Christ. In one of his letters to Newton, Thornton wrote:

How strange and yet how true, few preach Jesus, even of Gospel Ministers. London has 97 parish churches but only two or three men who preach the gospel.

And so, largely in conjunction with one other, both men worked diligently for the gospel. As Newton preached and discipled, Thornton invested sacrificially. Thornton’s relationship with Newton provides a snapshot into just how generous he was.

On one occasion, Thornton traveled from London to hear Newton preach. After the sermon, Thornton approached Newton and informed him that he would provide £200 every year for the pastor to maintain a home that could be utilized for ministry. Today, that investment would be worth more than $50,000 a year.

Thornton was also instrumental in encouraging Newton to publish his hymns for the masses. In a letter Newton wrote to Thornton, he expressed how he considered the work of the hymns to be credited to Thornton as much as himself. Thornton had invested in the first 1,000 copies and assisted in dispersing the hymnals. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the forty-first hymn, titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” would one day become the most sung and beloved hymn in the world: “Amazing Grace.”

Lessons from the Life of John Thornton

The measure of Thornton’s impact on the world in the eighteenth century is difficult to quantify. His investments in the gospel represent only a small fraction of the work he completed. He invested in so many individuals and ministries around the world. Although we can’t grasp the extent to which God used Thornton to impact the world now, there are four immediate lessons we can glean from his life.

#1: The Stewardship of John Thornton 

John Thornton lived in a unique time period. It was an era which, in many ways, preceded the societal establishments of orphanages and hospitals. If good was to be done, it typically was through private means. Aware of this, Thornton was burdened to use the means God had given him to spread the gospel and create opportunities for mercy ministry.

Few have pursued stewardship as diligently as John Thornton. Regardless of one’s socio-economic status, Thornton’s testimony reminds us that everything is a gift from God. As Christians, we must regularly consider how to steward whatever resources God has given us for His purposes.

#2: The Humility of John Thornton

It is rather ironic to consider how well-known Thornton’s generosity was. He was not an individual who took delight in public praise or acknowledgment. Everything he did was in service to his Master.

His desire was only that more people would know the name of Jesus Christ,
not that of John Thornton

Thornton is an example of Jesus’ instruction that when people give, they must not let their left hand know what their right hand is doing (Matt. 6:3). So, when we give, let us do so in order that Jesus’ name receives the praise, not our own.

#3: The Compassion of John Thornton

Thornton was not the only generous individual in England during his time. However, one characteristic which distinguished him from others was his Christ-like compassion. Despite his economic and social status, he was a man the people had access to. As needs were presented to him, he took the time to listen and demonstrate compassion. He never lost sight of the priority of people amidst his responsibilities.

Today, in an age where immediacy and productivity are so heavily prioritized, may we not forget to take the time to listen and show compassion to a world that desperately needs it.

#4: The Joy of John Thornton

While he may have been the wealthiest merchant in England, John Thornton’s treasure was not found on this earth. Those who interacted with him saw a man whose satisfaction was deeply rooted in Jesus. The first time William Wilberforce met Thornton, he recorded in his journal how “unaffectedly happy” Thornton was. On his deathbed, Thornton’s children asked him whether he was happy. “Yes,” Thornton replied, “happy in Jesus.”

Thornton’s life is a demonstration that lasting joy is not found in anything this world offers. Instead, its source is singular, found perfectly and fully in the triune God. It was Thornton’s joy in the Lord which caused him to devote every aspect of his life to the cause of Christ.

My prayer is that God would raise up more men like John Thornton in this generation.