Thursday, July 24, 2008

John Newton

Thanks to one megahit hymn, John Newton, born on July 24, 1725, is perhaps the most well-known hymn writer of the eighteenth century in modern times (even more so than Watts and Wesley, who wrote a greater number of hymns that are still in current use). Recent years have seen books, documentaries, and even a feature film recounting the story of Newton, slave ship captain turned Anglican priest, and his Amazing grace.

Newton's conversion to Christianity occurred on May 10, 1748, a date which he marked each following year, but he did not abandon the slave trade for some years after that, though eventually he came to renounce and condemn it. While Amazing grace is assumed to refer to his reformation, he wrote another hymn which seems to come even more directly from his past. It begins:

In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.

After settling into his new life in the clergy, Newton and his friend and neighbor William Cowper wrote hymns as part of their regular Bible study. These were collected in a volume called Olney Hymns, published in 1779. Many of them (mostly unknown today) recount stories from scripture, such as this one about Hannah and her prayers for a son, from 1 Samuel 1:4-20.

When Hannah, pressed with grief,
Poured forth her soul in prayer;
She quickly found relief,
And left her burden there:
Like her, in every trying case,
Let us approach the throne of grace.

When she began to pray,
Her heart was pained and sad;
But ere she went away,
Was comforted and glad:
In trouble, what a resting place,
Have they who know the throne of grace!

Eli her case mistook,
How was her spirit moved
By his unkind rebuke?
But God her cause approved.
All swelling sorrows sink apace,
When we approach the throne of grace.

She was not filled with wine,
As Eli rashly thought;
But with a faith divine,
And found the help she sought:
Fresh strength they gain to run their race,
Who come before the throne of grace.

Thousands before have tried,
And found the promise true;
Not one been yet denied,
Then why should I or you?
Let us by faith their footsteps trace,
And hasten to the throne of grace.

John Newton, c. 1779; alt.
Tune: BEVAN (H.M.)
John Goss, 1853

No doubt we'll be seeing more of John Newton's hymns. Amazing grace has been covered exhaustively elsewhere, but there are many other interesting ones to explore.

P.S. This hymn is written in the unique Hallelujah Meter (, not often differentiated in modern hymnal indexes. The most well-known tune in H.M. is DARWALL, originally written in 1770 for a paraphrase of Psalm 148. I don't go on much about meter (really just a summary of the syllables in each line of each verse of a particular hymn), though I think it's kind of interesting. You can read more about hymn meters if you're so inclined.

***UPDATE***  This hymn with words and music together is now posted to be shared on Facebook.  Go to "Conjubilant W. Song" and click on "Photos" then "Albums" -- it's in the Downloadable Hymns album.

1 comment:

Dorothy said...

Thanks for the introduction to one of John Newton's lesser known hymns.