Hymns - John Newton and His Study
March 12, 2024
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
John Newton

John Newton Painting, 1807

John Newton (1725-1807), author of “Amazing Grace,” lived an amazing life which reads like an adventure novel.

His godly mother, a non-conformist, died when he was seven, and after only two years of formal schooling he joined his unbelieving father at sea at age 11, starting on a career of wickedness and blasphemy and infidelity. In an attempt to forget the God his mother taught him and quiet his conscience, he moved from deism to atheism. Later he said, “I believed my own lie.”

He endured a terrible flogging for attempting to desert from the Royal Navy. Captured by a slave trader in West Africa, he became a slave to this man’s African wife who treated him like a dog, forcing him to live in filthy rags with barely enough food to survive. After being rescued by an agent of his father, Newton became a master of a slave ship.

He was converted in 1748 at age 23. This was in connection with a fierce storm that almost sank his ship, but it was doubtless an answer to the prayers of his long-deceased mother and those of Mary “Polly” Catlett, the godly girl he had wanted to marry from the time she was 14 and who waited for him to come to Christ. They married in 1750.

“Though Newton continued in his profession of sailing and slave trading for a time, his life was transformed. He began a disciplined Bible study, prayer, and Christian reading schedule and tried to be a Christian example to the sailors under his command” (Christianity.com).

Six years later, he came under the influence of George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers and began to study for the ministry. Over the next nine years, he studied the Scriptures diligently, improved the little Latin he had learned in his childhood, and learned Hebrew and Greek.

Eventually the old slaver became an ardent abolitionist, joining hands with William Wilberforce and others who would be instrumental in banning the British slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833.

In 1764, Newton was appointed the pastor of the Anglican church at Olney, Bucks, in Buckinghamshire. When he began his pastorate, Newton had only a handful of sermons, but he was encouraged that God would supply his need.

“On taking up his abode at Olney, when he had preached six sermons, he thought he had told them his whole stock, and was considerably depressed thereby; but, walking one afternoon by the side of the river Ouse, he says: ‘I asked myself, How long has this river run? Many hundred years before I was born, and will certainly run on many years after I am gone. Who supplies the fountain from whence this river comes? God. Is not the fund of my sermons equally inexhaustible? The Word of God? Yes, surely, I have never been afraid of running out since that time’” (“John Newton,” The Baptist Particular, Jan. 24, 2024, citing The Sower, 1896).

At Olney, Newton made the acquaintance of William Cowper, author of “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Cowper was converted here while living with a pastor friend, Morley Unwin, whose house was next door to Newton’s parsonage. In fact, Cowper lived with Newton and his wife for 14 months. Newton was Cowper’s pastor, confidant, friend, and fellow hymn writer.

The two men collaborated on a hymnal, Newton writing 280 of the 348 hymns. The
Olney Hymnal was published in 1779.

Newton often wrote hymns to accompany his sermons, to further educate his people in biblical theology. In those days, hymn singing was a major part of theological education.

In the last four years of his ministry at Olney (1775-1779), Newton had close fellowship with John Sutcliff, pastor of the Baptist church at Olney. Newton joined the Baptists in several of their meetings, including the ordination of William Carey. Together with Andrew Fuller and John Ryland, Sutcliff was prominent in the Baptist revival and the founding of the first British Baptist missionary sending organization.

“We have the evidence of Newton’s
diary that they were years of deep brotherly fellowship between the two men. On several occasions Newton deferred an engagement at the Parish Church in order to attend a special meeting ‘at Mr. Sutcliff’s.’ ... Before Sutcliff had been in Olney six months there was a gathering of Baptist Ministers here; Newton was present, welcomed and loved by them all” (“John Sutcliff of Olney,
Baptist Quarterly, July 1952).

The pastor’s house or vicarage at Olney was enlarged for Newton by William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801). He was England’s Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1772 to 1775, returning to England at the dawn of the American War of Independence. He was the major donor for the founding of Dartmouth College, one of nine colleges chartered before the revolution.

Newton’s study at Olney was in the attic on the third floor. It featured a dormer window, which is a window that protrudes from a slopped roof to give light and air to an attic. Here, John Newton labored for 15 years, in prayer, in study, in meditation, in correspondence, and in writing sermons and hymns.

Newton’s Study: There was spiritual blessing and glory there.
In this study, Newton wrote his part of the Olney Hymns. There, he wrote such words as the following:

“Amazing Grace” Olney Hymns, Book 1, No. 41

The Lord has promised good to me, His Word my hope secures; He will my Shield and Portion be, As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who called me here below, Will be forever mine.

“Zion, or the City of God”
Olney Hymns, Book 1, No. 60

1 Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God.
He whose Word cannot be broken
formed thee for His own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation's walls surrounded,
thou may'st smile at all thy foes.

2 See, the streams of living waters,
springing from eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters
and all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river
ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the Giver,
never fails from age to age.

3 'Round each habitation hov'ring,
see the cloud and fire appear
for a glory and a cov'ring,
showing that the Lord is near.
Thus deriving from their banner
light by night and shade by day,
safe they feed upon the manna
which He gives them on their way.

4 Savior, since of Zion's city
I through grace a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name.
Fading is the worldling's pleasures,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasures
none but Zion's children know.

“Behold the Throne of Grace”
Olney Hymns, Book, 1, No. 33

Behold the throne of grace!
The promise calls me near:
there Jesus shows a smiling face,
and waits to answer prayer.

That rich atoning blood,
which sprinkled round we see,
provides for those who come to God
an all prevailing plea.

My soul, ask what thou wilt;
thou canst not be too bold;
since his own blood for thee he spilt,
what else can he withhold?

“Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat”
Olney Hymns, Book 3, No. 12

1 Approach, my soul, the mercy seat,
where Jesus answers pray'r;
there humbly fall before His feet,
for none can perish there.

2 Thy promise is my only plea,
with this I venture nigh;
Thou callest burdened souls to Thee,
and such, O Lord, am I.

3 Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
by Satan sorely pressed,
by wars without, and fears within,
I come to Thee for rest.

4 Be Thou my shield and hiding place,
that, sheltered near Thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
and tell him Thou hast died.

5 O wondrous love, to bleed and die,
to bear the cross and shame,
that guilty sinners such as I,
might plead Thy gracious name.

6 Poor tempest-tossed soul, be still,
my promised grace receive;
'tis Jesus speaks; I must, I will,
I can, I do believe.

“The Name of Jesus”
Olney Hymns, Book 1, No. 57

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in a believer'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.

“The Saints Emmanuel’s Portion Are”
Olney Hymns, Book 3, No. 99

The saints Emmanuel’s portion are,
Redeemed by price, reclaimed by power;
His special choice and tender care,
Owns them and guards them every hour.

He finds them in a barren land,
Beset with sins and fears and woes;
He leads and guides them by His hand,
And bears them safe from all their foes.

Newton’s Study: There was spiritual warfare there.

After leaving Olney, Newton wrote to a successor as follows:

“Methinks I see you sitting in my old corner in the study. I will warn you of one thing--that room (do not start) used to be haunted. I cannot say I ever saw or heard anything with my bodily organs, but I have been sure there were evil spirits in it, and very near me--a spirit of folly, a spirit of indolence, a spirit of unbelief, and many others--indeed, their name is legion. But why should I say they are in your study, when they followed me to London, and still pester me here?”

This is a description of the spiritual warfare that is the lot of every born again believer and in particular those who are at the forefront of preaching God’s Word and leading God’s people.

“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Ephesians 6:10-18).

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