Eliza Cunningham (1771–1785), was born at St. Margaret’s, Rochester, Kent, England. She was the daughter of James and Elizabeth Cunningham. Elizabeth was the sister of John Newton’s wife, Mary. In 1774, the Cunninghams moved from Kent to Anstruther, Fifeshire, Scotland.
Mother Elizabeth Cunningham experienced the death of her only son, John, at the age of twelve. Then she became a widow with the death of her husband, George. In 1782, her child of fourteen, Susie, died of consumption. Elizabeth had yet one child remaining, her dear Eliza. But soon the mother caught a terrible cold and wished for the Eliza to live with John and Mary Newton.
“On this occasion, that fortitude and resolution which strongly marked my sister’s character, was remarkably displayed. She knew that her own race was almost finished; she earnestly desired that Eliza might live or die with us.”
March 15, 1783 Eliza was adopted by the Rev. John Newton.
“I told you your Eliza should be ours. This was a settled thing before we saw her; but she has made herself ours since, upon her own account, and has taken possession of a large room in each of our hearts. Her affectionate, obliging gentle behavior has endeared her very much to me. As to her health, though she has too much of a fever, I think she is Letter since she came. I hope she does not suffer much pain, but she is so very patient that I cannot be certain. My chief desire for her is, that the Lord may speak to her heart, draw her to Himself, and seal her for His own. And then whether she goes to heaven at the age of twelve or of a hundred and twenty is no great matter You are always in our thoughts and in our prayers. The Lord bless you, yea He has blessed you, and He will bless you to the end! We shall meet again (and it will be a bonny meeting) before the throne, to sing the high praises of the Lamb that was slain.”
May 10, 1783, mother Elizabeth Cunningham died.
Soon Eliza Cunningham started to experience her own sickness.
“From the time of the arrival of their niece, Miss Eliza Cunningham, Mr. and Mrs. Newton had been anxious about her health. She had won their affection by the remarkable sweetness of her temper, and they witnessed with exceeding joy the development of those religious principles in which she had been trained.”
In April 1874 she went to Dr. Benamore and she was treated in various ways including seaside living. They traveled to Southampton in the autumn of 1784.
“Mr. Newton undertook this journey, in great part, for the sake of the health of his niece. Miss Eliza Cunningham; and in writing to Miss Catlett, who was left at home, he gives the following more particular account: “We have enjoyed a good measure of health and peace, and have met with nothing but kindness since we have been abroad. At Mr. Etty's I had a pretty retirement, a summer-house, which was appropriated to me for a study. Underneath there is a grotto, lined with moss and shell-work, and a hermit in it; he is dressed in a friar's habit, and would almost make me ask his pardon for disturbing him; he looks so grave and so much alive, as if he was reading a paper that lies before him among several books upon a table. The walks in the garden were very pretty, so was the country round about. There are many things pretty and pleasing likewise at Southampton. But I shall not be sorry when the time comes to leave them all, and return to Charles Square.”
In 1785, they repeated their trip to Southampton and hoped for the benefits of seaside healing again.
“The air and bathing of Southampton and its neighbourhood had proved on former occasions of much use in restoring her; and, with the hope that a like beneficial result would follow, their friends the Taylors invited Mrs. Newton and her niece to visit them in the summer.”
“After being six weeks at Southampton without deriving any essential benefit from the change. Miss Cunningham returned to London about the middle of September.”
Before her death she was truly excited about her new prospects in heaven.
“We are told that after her return to London, when informed, at her own particular request, that she had not long to live, she said with an air of ineffable satisfaction, ‘Oh, that is good news, indeed.’ Being asked if she should wish to live, provided the Lord should restore her to perfect health, she replied, ‘Not for the world, not for a thousand worlds.’ And again, on the last day of her life, being questioned as to her state, she answered, ‘Truly happy; and if this be dying, it is a pleasant thing to die.’ Addressing Mrs. Newton, she said, ‘Do not weep for me, my dear aunt, but rather rejoice and praise on my account.’ She had something to say, either in the way of admonition or consolation, as she thought most suitable, to every one whom she saw.”
Eliza Cunningham died October 6th 1785, fourteen years, eight months.
John Newton expressed his own feelings on the event:
“Writing to Mr. Bull, Mr. Newton thus expresses himself in reference to this event: ‘The translation of our sweet Eliza was most comfortable, yea glorious. Blessed be the Lord, I can hardly name one of the many merciful dispensations with which he has favored me in the course of my life which my heart is more satisfied with, or which calls more loudly upon my gratitude, than this last. A trial it doubtless was to part with such a child; but I have not been permitted for a moment to wish it had been otherwise.”
Quotes from: Bull, Josiah. John Newton of Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth, An Autobiography and Narrative. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1868.