This account of a dream of redemption recorded by John Newton, the former slave-captain, has fascinated me since it was first shown me at Duke University. It seems straightforward on first reading, but becomes more and more intriguing with each reading.
The scene presented to my imagination was the harbour of Venice, where we had lately been. I thought it was night, and my watch upon the deck; and that, as I was walking to and fro by myself, a person came to me, I do not remember from whence, and brought me a ring, with an express charge to keep it carefully: assuring me, that while I preserved the ring I would be happy and successful: but if I lost or parted with it, I must expect nothing but trouble and misery.
I accepted the present and the terms willingly, not in the least doubting my own care to preserve it, and highly satisfied to have my happiness in my own keeping. I was engaged in these thoughts, when a second person came to me, and observing the ring on my finger, took occasion to ask me some questions concerning it. I readily told him all its virtues; and his answer expressed a surprise at my weakness, in expecting such effects from a ring. I think he reasoned with me for some time upon the impossibility of the thing; and at length urged me, in direct terms, to throw it away.
At first I was shocked with the proposal; but his insinuations prevailed. I began to reason and doubt myself, and at last plucked it off my finger, and dropped it over the ship’s side into the water; which it no sooner touched, than I saw, at the same instant, a terrible fire burst out from a range of mountains, a part of the Alos which appeared at some distance behind the city of Venice.
I saw the hills as distinctly as if awake, and they were all in flames. I perceived, too late, my folly; and my tempter, with an air of insult, informed me, that all the mercy of God in reserve for me was comprised in that ring, which I had wilfully thrown away.
I understood that I must now go with him to the burning mountains, and that all the flames I saw were kindled on my account. I trembled, and was in great agony; so that it was surprising I did not then awake: but my dream continued; and when I thought myself upon the point of constrained departure, and stood, self-condemned, without plea or hope, suddenly, either a third person, or the same who brought the ring at first, came to me, (I am not certain which), and demanded the cause of my grief. I told him the plain case, confessing that I had ruined myself wilfully, and deserved no pity. He blamed my rashness; and asked, if I should be wiser supposing I had my ring again. I could hardly answer to this; for I thought it was gone beyond recall. I believe indeed, I had not time to answer, before I saw this unexpected friend go down under the water, just in the spot where I had dropped it; and he soon returned, bringing the ring with him.
The moment he came on board, the flames in the mountain were extinguished, and my seducer left me.
Then was “the prey taken from the hand of the mighty, and the lawful captive delivered”. My fears were at an end, and with joy and gratitude I approached my kind deliverer to receive the ring again; but he refused to return it and spoke to this effect: ‘If you should be intrusted with this ring again, you would very soon bring yourself into the same distress; you are not able to keep it: but I will preserve it for you, and, whenever it is needful, will produce it in your behalf.’
John Newton (1799 ?), The Life of the Rev. John Newton: “An Authentic Narrative”
London: The Religious Tract Society, 20-21.