1725 - 1807 Author of "A Friend Closer than a Brother" in The Pilgrim Hymnal John Newton (b. London, England, 1725; d. London, 1807) was born into a Christian home, but his godly mother died when he was seven, and he joined his father at sea when he was eleven. His licentious and tumultuous sailing life included a flogging for attempted desertion from the Royal Navy and captivity by a slave trader in West Africa. After his escape he himself became the captain of a slave ship. Several factors contributed to Newton's conversion: a near-drowning in 1748, the piety of his friend Mary Catlett, (whom he married in 1750), and his reading of Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ. In 1754 he gave up the slave trade and, in association with William Wilberforce, eventually became an ardent abolitionist. After becoming a tide-surveyor in Liverpool, England, Newton came under the influence of George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley and began to study for the ministry. He was ordained in the Church of England and served in Olney (1764-1780) and St. Mary Woolnoth, London (1780-1807). His legacy to the Christian church includes his hymns as well as his collaboration with William Cowper (PHH 434) in publishing Olney Hymns (1779), to which Newton contributed 280 hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”
Newton, John, who was born in London, July 24, 1725, and died there Dec. 21, 1807, occupied an unique position among the founders of the Evangelical School, due as much to the romance of his young life and the striking history of his conversion, as to his force of character. His mother, a pious Dissenter, stored his childish mind with Scripture, but died when he was seven years old. At the age of eleven, after two years' schooling, during which he learned the rudiments of Latin, he went to sea with his father. His life at sea teems with wonderful escapes, vivid dreams, and sailor recklessness. He grew into an abandoned and godless sailor. The religious fits of his boyhood changed into settled infidelity, through the study of Shaftesbury and the instruction of one of his comrades. Disappointing repeatedly the plans of his father, he was flogged as a deserter from the navy, and for fifteen months lived, half-starved and ill-treated, in abject degradation under a slave-dealer in Africa. The one restraining influence of his life was his faithful love for his future wife, Mary Catlett, formed when he was seventeen, and she only in her fourteenth year. A chance reading of Thomas à Kempis sowed the seed of his conversion; which quickened under the awful contemplations of a night spent in steering a water-logged vessel in the face of apparent death (1748). He was then twenty-three. The six following years, during which he commanded a slave ship, matured his Christian belief. Nine years more, spent chiefly at Liverpool, in intercourse with Whitefield, Wesley, and Nonconformists, in the study of Hebrew and Greek, in exercises of devotion and occasional preaching among the Dissenters, elapsed before his ordination to the curacy of Olney, Bucks (1764).
The Olney period was the most fruitful of his life. His zeal in pastoral visiting, preaching and prayer-meetings was unwearied. He formed his lifelong friendship with Cowper, and became the spiritual father of Scott the commentator. At Olney his best works—-Omicron's Letters (1774); Olney Hymns (1779); Cardiphonia, written from Olney, though published 1781—were composed. As rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, in the centre of the Evangelical movement (1780-1807) his zeal was as ardent as before. In 1805, when no longer able to read his text, his reply when pressed to discontinue preaching, was, "What, shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak!" The story of his sins and his conversion, published by himself, and the subject of lifelong allusion, was the base of his influence; but it would have been little but for the vigour of his mind (shown even in Africa by his reading Euclid drawing its figures on the sand), his warm heart, candour, tolerance, and piety. These qualities gained him the friendship of Hannah More, Cecil, Wilberforce, and others; and his renown as a guide in experimental religion made him the centre of a host of inquirers, with whom he maintained patient, loving, and generally judicious correspondence, of which a monument remains in the often beautiful letters of Cardiphonia. As a hymnwriter, Montgomery says that he was distanced by Cowper. But Lord Selborne's contrast of the "manliness" of Newton and the "tenderness" of Cowper is far juster. A comparison of the hymns of both in The Book of Praise will show no great inequality between them. Amid much that is bald, tame, and matter-of-fact, his rich acquaintance with Scripture, knowledge of the heart, directness and force, and a certain sailor imagination, tell strongly. The one splendid hymn of praise, "Glorious things of thee are spoken," in the Olney collection, is his. "One there is above all others" has a depth of realizing love, sustained excellence of expression, and ease of development. "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds" is in Scriptural richness superior, and in structure, cadence, and almost tenderness, equal to Cowper's "Oh! for a closer walk with God." The most characteristic hymns are those which depict in the language of intense humiliation his mourning for the abiding sins of his regenerate life, and the sense of the withdrawal of God's face, coincident with the never-failing conviction of acceptance in The Beloved. The feeling may be seen in the speeches, writings, and diaries of his whole life. [Rev. H. Leigh Bennett, M.A.]
A large number of Newton's hymns have some personal history connected with them, or were associated with circumstances of importance. These are annotated under their respective first lines. Of the rest, the known history of which is confined to the fact that they appeared in the Olney Hymns, 1779, the following are in common use:—
1. Be still, my heart, these anxious cares. Conflict.
2. Begone, unbelief, my Saviour is near. Trust.
3. By the poor widow's oil and meal. Providence.
4. Chief Shepherd of Thy chosen sheep. On behalf of Ministers.
5. Darkness overspreads us here. Hope.
6. Does the Gospel-word proclaim. Rest in Christ.
7. Fix my heart and eyes on Thine. True Happiness.
8. From Egypt lately freed. The Pilgrim's Song.
9. He Who on earth as man was Known. Christ the Rock.
10. How blest are they to whom the Lord. Gospel Privileges.
11. How blest the righteous are. Death of the Righteous.
12. How lost was my [our] condition. Christ the Physician.
13. How tedious and tasteless the hours. Fellowship with Christ.
14. How welcome to the saints [soul] when pressed. Sunday.
15. Hungry, and faint, and poor. Before Sermon.
16. In mercy, not in wrath, rebuke. Pleading for Mercy.
17. In themselves, as weak as worms. Power of Prayer.
18. Incarnate God, the soul that knows. The Believer's Safety.
19. Jesus, Who bought us with His blood. The God of Israel. "Teach us, 0 Lord, aright to plead," is from this hymn.
20. Joy is a [the] fruit that will not grow. Joy.
21. Let hearts and tongues unite. Close of the Year. From this "Now, through another year," is taken.
22. Let us adore the grace that seeks. New Year.
23. Mary to her [the] Saviour's tomb. Easter.
24. Mercy, 0 Thou Son of David. Blind Bartimeus.
25. My harp untun'd and laid aside. Hoping for a Revival. From this "While I to grief my soul gave way" is taken.
26. Nay, I cannot let thee go. Prayer. Sometimes, "Lord, I cannot let Thee go."
27. Now may He Who from the dead. After Sermon.
28. 0 happy they who know the Lord, With whom He deigns to dwell. Gospel Privilege.
29. O Lord, how vile am I. Lent.
30. On man in His own Image made. Adam.
31. 0 speak that gracious word again. Peace through Pardon.
32. Our Lord, Who knows full well. The Importunate Widow. Sometimes altered to "Jesus, Who knows full well," and again, "The Lord, Who truly knows."
33. Physician of my sin-sick soul. Lent.
34. Pleasing spring again is here. Spring.
35. Poor, weak, and worthless, though I am. Jesus the Friend.
36. Prepare a thankful song. Praise to Jesus.
37. Refreshed by the bread and wine. Holy Communion. Sometimes given as "Refreshed by sacred bread and wine."
38. Rejoice, believer, in the Lord. Sometimes “Let us rejoice in Christ the Lord." Perseverance.
39. Salvation, what a glorious plan. Salvation.
40. Saviour, shine and cheer my soul. Trust in Jesus. The cento "Once I thought my mountain strong," is from this hymn.
41. Saviour, visit Thy plantation. Prayer for the Church.
42. See another year [week] is gone. Uncertainty of Life.
43. See the corn again in ear. Harvest.
44. Sinner, art thou still secure? Preparation for the Future.
45. Sinners, hear the [thy] Saviour's call. Invitation.
46. Sovereign grace has power alone. The two Malefactors.
47. Stop, poor sinner, stop and think. Caution and Alarm.
48. Sweeter sounds than music knows. Christmas.
49. Sweet was the time when first I felt. Joy in Believing.
50. Ten thousand talents once I owed. Forgiveness and Peace.
51. The grass and flowers, which clothe the field. Hay-time.
52. The peace which God alone reveals. Close of Service.
53. Thy promise, Lord, and Thy command. Before Sermon.
54. Time, by moments, steals away. The New Year.
55. To Thee our wants are known. Close of Divine Service.
56. We seek a rest beyond the skies. Heaven anticipated.
57. When any turn from Zion's way. Jesus only.
58. When Israel, by divine command. God, the Guide and Sustainer of Life.
59. With Israel's God who can compare? After Sermon.
60. Yes, since God Himself has said it. Confidence.
61. Zion, the city of our God. Journeying Zionward.
-- John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)
Newton, J., p. 803, i. Another hymn in common use from the Olney Hymns, 1779, is "Let me dwell on Golgotha" (Holy Communion).
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, Appendix, Part II (1907)
John Newton was born in London, July 24, 1725. His mother died when he was seven years old. In his eleventh year he accompanied his father, a sea captain, on a voyage. For several years his life was one of dissipation and crime. He was disgraced while in the navy. Afterwards he engaged in the slave trade. Returning to England in 1748, the vessel was nearly wrecked in a storm. This peril forced solemn reflection upon him, and from that time he was a changed man. It was six years, however, before he relinquished the slave trade, which was not then regarded as an unlawful occupation. But in 1754, he gave up sea-faring life, and holding some favourable civil position, began also religious work. In 1764, in his thirty-ninth year, he entered upon a regular ministry as the Curate of Olney. In this position he had intimate intercourse with Cowper, and with him produced the "Olney Hymns." In 1779, Newton became Rector of S. Mary Woolnoth, in London, in which position he became more widely known. It was here he died, Dec. 21, 1807, His published works are quite numerous, consisting of sermons, letters, devotional aids, and hymns. He calls his hymns "The fruit and expression of his own experience."
--Annotations of the Hymnal, Charles Hutchins, M.A. 1872
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