Saturday, July 24, 2010

John Newton

Hymnwriting giant John Newton was born today in 1725 in London. From a very early age his mother taught him from the Bible, but she died when he was seven. His sea captain father was not at all a religious man, and young John joined his father at sea after only two years of formal schooling. This would lead to his infamous six-year career as captain of a slave ship before his well-documented conversion experiences.

Years later, as an Anglican minister in the parish of Olney, he produced his influential Olney Hymns (1779) with his friend and collaborator William Cowper. Newton wrote most of the 348 texts included in the collection (280 to Cowper's 68). Hymn singing was still not widespread in the Church of England; like the hymns of Philip Doddridge, Newton's were often written to illustrate a particular sermon he was delivering. For some reason, this was apparently considered more acceptable. But they were definitely written for public worship, "for the use of plain people," according to Newton's preface to Olney Hymns, and not as mere poetic reflections.

Today's hymn is perhaps his second most familiar, though miles behind his first (and some might argue that his Glorious things of thee are spoken should be second). The scripture verse that appears with this text in Olney Hymns is Song of Solomon 1:3, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out, and from there Newton derived his first line, going on to add several other names from both the Old and New Testaments:

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In every person's ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
And drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Guardian, Friend,
My Everflowing Spring,
My Love, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

John Newton, 1779; alt.
Alexander R. Reinagle, 1836

Alexander Reinagle's popular tune ST. PETER was first matched with Newton's text in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) and like so many other combinations from that book, has become the most often-used.

The window below is from Newton's Olney parish, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and depicts both Newton (on the left) and Cowper.

Two Years Ago:
John Newton

One Year Ago: John Newton


Rich Tuttle said...

Just thought you’d be interested to know that Newton considered August 4th to be his birthday after Britain switched from the Julian calendar… although I consider it alright to celebrate his birthday twice.

I’ve blogged about Newton in the past if you are interested:

C.W.S. said...

Thanks for the information, Rich.