Friday, July 24, 2009

John Newton

John Newton, the writer of the most recorded hymn of all time, was born in London on this day in 1725. It may even be that Amazing grace is the most recorded vocal selection ever. There are multiple books about Newton and his famous hymn (I'd recommend the one by Steve Turner).

The story of Newton's conversion from participant in the slave trade to Anglican priest is probably known to most of you (though Turner's book makes it clear that it was no simple, clean-cut process). So I don't have a lot to add about Newton's life, or about his top-ten hymn. But he wrote a large number of other hymns during the years when he was the curate of the Anglican church in Olney. Every time I look thorough Olney Hymns (1779), the hymnal he compiled with his friend
William Cowper, I find an interesting text I haven't seen before.

As I've said before, I like hymns that recount stories from scripture, and I think Newton
liked them too. This one starts with the story of Elijah and the widow's cruse of oil, from I Kings 17:8-16.

By one poor widow’s oil and meal
Elijah was sustained;
Though small the stock it lasted well,
For God the store maintained.

It seemed as if from day to day,
They were to eat and die;
But still, though in a secret way,
God sent a fresh supply.

No barn or storehouse we possess
On which we can depend;
Yet have no cause to fear distress,
For Jesus is our Friend.

Then let not doubts your mind assail,
Remember, God has said,
“The cruse and barrel shall not fail;
My people shall be fed.”

And thus though faint it often seems,
Christ keeps our grace alive;
Supplied by rich, refreshing streams,
Our faltering hopes revive.

John Newton, 1779; alt,
Tune: EVAN (C.M.)
William Henry Havergal, 1846

It must have been shortly after the publication of Olney Hymns that Newton left that parish in 1779 to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London, where he remained until his death in 1807. He and his wife were buried at that London church, but in 1893 were reinterred in Olney.

One Year Ago: John Newton

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