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 Issues | Church History | John Newton

Great Churchmen (No 5)

Biography of John Newton
Chapter 4 by A W Parsons
The Olney Hymns

<<Chapter 3

“No more helpful hymns than his (Newton’s) have ever been written.” - IRENE H. BARNES In Salisbury Square.
“William Cowper (1731-1800) furnishes the one instance of an English poet of the front rank who has given us a series of hymns.” - Fellowship Hymn Book.

The last years of his stay in Olney were spent in constant intimacy with Cowper. You may still see the poet's house in Olney. Only an orchard divided its garden and Cowper's summer-house from the Vicarage garden and the proprietor charged Cowper and Newton a guinea a year for the privilege of passing through this “Guinea Field,” as it is still called, and so visiting each other without taking a circuitous journey by lane and street.

Olney Vicarage, in which Newton lived, stands only a short distance from the Church. Newton's study was the room at the east end of the top of the house, with windows projecting from the roof. Over the mantelpiece may still be seen the wooden panel with the following texts in large lettering which he had painted on it:

“Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable” (Isaiah xliii. 4).

“But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.” (Deut. xv. 15 ).

In this room he wrote the Letters of Omicron and Vigil and the Olney Hymns. The hymns, though not published until 1779, were nearly all written several years earlier. Of the 348 which form the collection, Newton wrote no less than 280. That Cowper did not contribute more than 68, one of which is “a fragment,” was due to his illness-a fact which also delayed the publication of the hymn book. Newton makes touching reference to this in his Preface, where he explains that the design of the book was not only to promote “the faith and comfort of sincere Christians,” but also “to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.” The intention was to provide a hymn book “for the use of plain people.”

Among the best known of Cowper's verses are “Hark, my soul! it is the Lord.” Of all Cowper's hymns this is the finest. It has been translated into many languages, and is to be found in every hymnal of any standing published during the last hundred years. It was one of the favourite hymns of William Ewart Gladstone who translated it into Italian a few years before his death. Others include : “God moves in a mysterious way”; “There is a fountain fill'd with Blood”; and “Oh for a closer walk with God." Newton's two most popular hymns have already been referred to at the beginning of this booklet. In addition we may mention : “Come, my soul, thy suit prepare.” Spurgeon used to have one or two verses of this hymn sung very softly before the main prayer of the service at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. “These three,” wrote Dr. Percy Dearmer in Songs of Praise Discussed, “seem to have reached immortality.”

Many of the Olney Hymns were originally written expressly for the parish prayer-meeting held on Tuesday evenings. This was the largest of all Newton's weekly gatherings and eventually it outgrew the place of meeting. In April, 1769, writing to a friend he said: “We are going to remove our prayer-meeting to the great room in the Great House. It is a noble place, with a parlour behind it, and holds one hundred and thirty people conveniently. Pray for us, that the Lord may be in the midst of us there, and that as He has now given us a Rehoboth (with reference to Gen. xxvi. 22) and has made room for us, so He may be pleased to add to our numbers, and make us fruitful in the land."

For this momentous occasion two special hymns appear to have been written. The one by Newton we know in its modern form beginning “Great Shepherd of Thy people, hear.” The other by Cowper: “Jesus, where'er Thy people meet.” In these hymns we have allusions to the circumstances under which they were written. In Newton's hymn :

As Thou hast given a place for prayer,
So give us hearts to pray.

And again:

Within these walls let holy peace,
And love, and concord dwell.

Cowper's hymn has a clear reference to the change from the old place of gathering to the new in the lines:

Dear Shepherd of Thy chosen few,
Thy former mercies here renew.

One of his stanzas has two of its lines so limited in its reference to the special circumstances as to cause its omission from the hymn as we know it:

Come Thou and fill this wider space,
And bless us with a large increase.

Prebendary Bennett in the well-known Dictionary of Hymnology by Dr. Julian (p. 803) remarks: “As a hymn-writer Montgomery says that he (Newton) was distanced by Cowper.” But Lord Selborne's contrast of the “manliness” of Newton and the “tenderness” of Cowper is far juster. He goes on to point out that the one splendid hymn of praise in the Olney collection - “Glorious things of Thee are spoken” -is Newton's. The hymns were probably given out verse by verse, like many of those by Watts and Doddridge, and were often suggested by Newton's sermons.

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