Friday, July 24, 2015

John Newton

John Newton, hymnwriter, Anglican priest, former slave-trader and later activist against slavery in England, was born today in London in 1725. Later in life he would mark May 10 as the anniversary of his conversion to Christianity in 1748.  He continued in the slave trade for a few years after that day, but tried to ensure that the Africans under his care were treated "humanely."

After giving up his seafaring life, he became surveyor of tides in the port of Liverpool, where he met George Whitefield, a deacon in the Church of England but also an early follower of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Newton was later introduced to Wesley, and it seems likely that his acquaintance with these men influenced not only his desire to be ordained in the Church of England (which finally happened in June 1764 after several years of applying), but also his later hymnwriting career. Hymns were not widely used in the Church of England in Newton's time (and were expressly forbidden by many bishops), but when Newton was established as the rector at the village of Olney he wrote many of his hymns to be sung at his weekly prayer service as a response to his sermon, believing that they were an effective way to reinforce his message (as John and Charles Wesley earlier believed of their Methodist followers).

Today's text is from Newton's Olney Hymns (1779) where it was titled The Lodestone.  It caught my attention because it creatively links our relationship with Christ to the natural phenomenon of magnetism, which I don't recall encountering before.

As needles point towards the pole,
When touched by the magnetic stone;
So faith in Jesus gives the soul
A tendency before unknown.

Till then, by earthly passions led,
In search of fancied good we range;
The paths of disappointment tread,
To nothing fixed, but love of change.

The Holy Spirit then imparts
The knowledge of the Savior’s love;
Our wand’ring, weary, restless hearts,
Are fixed at once, no more to move.

By Love’s sure light we soon perceive
Our noblest bliss, and proper end;
And gladly every idol leave,
To love and serve our Lord and Friend.

John Newton, 1779; alt.
Benjamin Cooke (?), 1794

As of last month, John Newton has the additional distinction of being the first hymnwriter whose most famous hymn has been sung on national television by a President of the United States.  I'm sure most, if not all of you saw President Obama's rendition of Amazing grace at the memorial service on June 26 for the nine people murdered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

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