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Annotations of the Hymnal
Charles L. Hutchins, 1872

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 favorable 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 St. 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 upon Popular Hymns
Charles Seymour Robinson, 1893

Upon a marble in the church of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch Haw, Lombard Street, London, one may read this inscription:

“John Newton, Clerk, once an Infidel and Libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy, Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks; And – years in this church.”

This epitaph was prepared by himself, the blank of which, preceding the “years,” should be filled with “28.” “And I earnestly desire,” he further says, “that no monument, and no inscription but to this purport, may be attempted for me.”

It will arrest attention on the instant, this frank admission made upon his tombstone by the man whose pen wrote the line all of us have sung for years: “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.” Was that man once an infidel and a libertine? His life has been written by his most intimate friend, Richard Cecil, and by others; our annotations need only that we quote what his biographers have said of him.

He was born in London, July 24, 1725, “old style;” August 5, as we now reckon dates; he died in London, December 21, 1807.

His father was a sea-faring man, the master of a ship trading chiefly between the ports of the Mediterranean. Within a year of his wife’s death he married a woman who apparently did not care to carry out the instructions of the former wife. It was a relief to her to have the child out of the way; and he was put to school for two years, where he acquired the simplest rudiments and a little smattering of Latin. His main acquisitions were in the way of idle habits and a taste for low associates; and by the time he was eleven he left school finally, and accompanied his father on his voyages for the four succeeding years.

He was one who never let his virtues get in the way of his enjoyments. Dissolute as he was even in his boyhood, he was not without religious conviction, frequently fasting and praying and returning to the Word of God; and we are told by Cecil that “he took up and laid aside a religious profession three or four different times before he was sixteen years of age.”

Very shortly after this, while in sailor’s garb, walking about the docks, Newton was seized and impressed on board the Harwich, and as war with France was at this time imminent, there was no way to procure his release. By and by, however, things changed, and he started on his way homeward over the sea. With the main incidents of that voyage we are probably many of us familiar– the terrible storm that threatened to founder the vessel, and which aroused a still more dreadful tempest in Newton’s soul; so that amid the crashing of the thunder and the vivid darting of the lightning he became insensible to all without in the recurrence of those Scriptures that sounded as anathemas of heaven upon his guilty head; his despair, his finding a copy of Thomas à Kempis in the cabin and perusing it, and its profound impression upon him; his determination to quit his wicked life– with this we are familiar.

Yet while this was succeeded by an undoubted change, it was not a thorough renewal. He needed a hand to lead him from remorse to repentance, from reformation to Christ. Even after his return to England and his marriage to Mary Catlett he reëmbarked in the slave-trade, and made three voyages to Guinea to purchase slaves for the West Indies. It was six years after that dreadful storm that Providence brought him into association with a godly sea captain, who, fathoming his condition, led him to that selfrenunciation which resulted in the full and unequivocal acceptance of Christ.

Hymns Ancient and Modern: Historical Edition
William H. Frere, 1909

John Newton was born in London, July 24, 1725, the son of a captain in the merchant service. At the age of eleven he went to sea with his father; at the age of seventeen he was impressed, but deserted, and was taken and punished. After many years of godless living, he was awakened by reading The Imitation of Christ, and in 1753 he went to Liverpool, where he spent nine years in study and preparation, and was ordained in 1764 as Curate of Olney, Bucks. Here he became the friend of William Cowper, the poet, with whom he published the Olney Hymns. He was appointed Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in London in 1779, where he remained until his death on December 21, 1807. Dictionary of National Biography xl. 362. Hymns 313, 366, 393, 460, 491, 597.

The Hymns and Hymn Writers of The Church
Charles S. Nutter & Wilbur F. Tillett, 1911

John Newton, the child of many prayers, the profligate youth, the wicked sailor boy, the contrite penitent, the happy Christian, the consecrated minister, the eminent divine, the sweet singer, was born in London July 24, 1725. His mother, a devotedly pious woman, died when he was only seven years of age. His only “schooling” was from his eighth to his tenth year. He was engaged in the African slave trade for several years, and was even himself held as a slave at one time in Sierra Leone. He became an infidel, but was converted in a storm at sea while returning from Africa. He married a noble and pious woman in 1750. He became a minister in the Established Church in 1758, but was not ordained until 1764, when he obtained the curacy of Olney, near Cambridge. He remained here for nearly sixteen years, being intimately associated with the poet Cowper, who was joint author with him of the Olney Hymns, 1779. Soon after the appearance of this volume he moved to London, where he did faithful and successful work for many years as rector of St. Mary Woolnoth. He attained an honored old age, dying December 21, 1807. Newton wrote his own epitaph, which he requested might be put upon a plain marble tablet near the vestry door of his church in London:

JOHN NEWTON, Clerk,
Once an Infidel and Libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and
Savior
JESUS CHRIST,
Preserved, restored, and pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long labored to destroy,
Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks
And... years in this church
On Feb. 1, 1750, he married
MARY,
Daughter of the late George Catlett
Of Catham, Kent.
He resigned her to the Lord who gave her
On 15th of December, 1790.

The following thirteen hymns are among the best in our Hymnal:

Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound 309
Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat 285
Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare 507
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken 210
How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds 137
How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours 538
Joy Is a Fruit That Will Not Grow 546
Lord, I Cannot Let Thee Go 514
May the Grace of Christ our Savior 40
One There Is, Above All Others 174
Safely Through Another Week 69
Though Troubles Assail, and Dangers Affright 92
While, With Ceaseless Course, the Sun 574

The Methodist Hymn-Book Illustrated
John Telford, 1909

John Newton was born in July, 1725, in London, where his mother, a pious Nonconformist, early stored his mind with Scripture. She died when he was seven, and four years later he went to sea with his father, a stern, silent man, who had been educated at a Jesuit college in Spain. He became an infidel, was flogged as a deserter from the Navy, and for fifteen months was brutally treated by a slave dealer at Sierra Leone with whom he had taken service. He managed to escape in 1747. He had formed an attachment when seventeen for Mary Catlett, then a girl of fourteen, and this proved the one restraining influence of his life. He was only prevented from drowning himself by the fear that she would form a bad opinion of him. He was much impressed by reading Stanhope’s Thomas à Kempis, and on his way home in 1748, a night spent on a water-logged vessel, with death staring him in the face, deepened the conviction. This he used to call ‘The Great Deliverance.’ He was then twenty-three. For four years he was master of a slave-ship, then he became tide surveyor at Liverpool, where he came under the influence of Whitefield and Wesley. He studied carefully, and in 1764 was ordained as curate of Olney. Three years later Cowper came to reside here, and for twelve years the two friends were hardly ever twelve hours apart. Newton says, ‘The first six years were spent in admiring and trying to imitate him; during the second I walked with him in the shadow of death.’ In 1771 he proposed to Cowper that they should compose a volume of hymns ‘for the promotion of the faith and comfort of sincere Christians.’ It was to be a memorial of their friendship. Its title-page reads, ‘Olney Hymns, in three books: Book I. On Select Texts of Scripture; Book II. On Occasional Subjects; Book III. On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life.’ It is dated Olney, February 15, 1779.

It is an astonishing fact that the sailor-preacher’s work compares so splendidly with that of a great English poet. His hymns embody his experience of the abounding grace and love of the Savior. ‘A comparison of both,’ says the Dictionary of Hymnology, ‘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 Oiney 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 ‘O for a closer walk with God.’”’

Newton was presented to the rectory of St. Mary Woolnoth, and left Olney at the end of 1779. His last task there was the publication of the Olney Hymns, which first made Cowper known to the world. In his preface Newton says that a few of the hymns had appeared in periodicals and in recent collections. The work had been undertaken not only with a desire to promote the faith and comfort of sincere Christians, but ‘as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and esteemed friendship.’ It would have been published earlier but for the ‘long and affecting indisposition’ which prevented Cowper from taking any further part in the work. In 1773 one of his worst attacks came on, and he was an inmate of Newton’s house for more than a year.

Earl Selbome says that the authors of the Olney Hymns are entitled to be placed at the head of all the writers of the Calvinistic school. ‘The greater number of the Olney hymns are, no doubt, homely and didactic; but to the best of them (and they are no inconsiderable proportion) the tenderness of Cowper and the manliness of Newton give the interest of contrast as well as of sustained reality. If Newton carried to some excess the sound principle laid down by him, that “perspicuity, simplicity, and ease should be chiefly attended to, and the imagery and coloring of poetry, if admitted at all, should be indulged very sparingly and with great judgement”– if he is often dry and colloquial– he rises at other times into soul-animating strains, such as “Glorious things of thee are spoken”; and sometimes rivals Cowper himself in depth of feeling. Cowper’s hymns in this book are, almost without exception, worthy of his name.’ This is, however, a somewhat generous estimate. Even Cowper’s muse drops sometimes from its serene height.

On Whit Sunday, June 1, 1879, two days before Frances Ridley Havergal died, the doctor told her she would soon be going home. She exclaimed, ‘Beautiful! too good to be true! Oh, it is the Lord Jesus that is so dear to me. I can't tell how precious! how much He has been to me!’ Afterwards she asked for ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.’

Newton continued to preach when he was more than eighty. He could scarcely see his manuscript, but took a servant with him into the pulpit, who stood behind and with a pointer traced out the lines. One Sunday morning Newton came to the words ‘Jesus Christ is precious,’ which he repeated. His servant thinking he was getting confused, whispered, ‘Go on, go on; you said that before’; Newton, looking round, replied, ‘John, I said that twice, and I am going to say it again’; then with redoubled force he sounded out the words, ‘Jesus Christ is precious.’ A pleasing picture of him is given in Henry Martyn’s Journal for 1804: ‘Drank tea at Mr. Newton’s: the old man was very civil to me, and striking in his remarks in general.’ In 1805 he was pressed to give up preaching, as he could no longer read his text. ‘What,’ he replied, ‘shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak!’ He died in 1807.

His epitaph was written by himself–

JOHN NEWTON, Clerk,
Once an infidel and libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa:
Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior
Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the Faith
He had long labored to destroy.
Near sixteen years at Olney in Bucks;
And twenty-seven years in this Church.

TitleAuthor
Again Our Earthly Cares We LeaveRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Amazing Grace! How Sweet the SoundRev. John Newton, 1779
And Dost Thou Say, Ask What Thou Wilt?Rev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Approach, My Soul, the Mercy-SeatRev. John Newton, 1779
As by the Light of Opening DayRev. John Newton, 1779
As when the Weary Traveler GainsRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Be Still, My Heart, These Anxious CaresRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Begone, Unbelief, My Savior Is NearRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Behold the Savior of MankindSamuel Wesley, Sr. (1662-1735)
Behold the Throne of Grace!Rev. John Newton, 1779
By Faith in Christ I Walk with GodRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Come, My Soul, Thy Suit PrepareRev. John Newton, 1779
Day of Judgment, Day of WondersRev. John Newton, 1779
Dear Shepherd of Thy People, HearRev. John Newton, 1769
Does the Gospel Word Proclaim?Rev. John Newton (1725-1807)
For a Season Called to PartRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Glorious Things of Thee Are SpokenRev. John Newton, 1779
Great Shepherd of Thy People, HearRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Great Shepherd of Thy Ransomed Flock!Rev. John Newton (1725-1807)
How Sweet the Name of Jesus SoundsRev. John Newton, 1779
How Tedious and Tasteless the HoursRev. John Newton, 1779
I Asked the Lord That I Might GrowRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
I Saw One Hanging on a TreeRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
In Evil Long I Took DelightRev. John Newton, 1779
Jesus, Who Knows Full WellRev. John Newton, 1779
Joy Is a Fruit That Will Not GrowRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Kindly Spring Again Is HereRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Let Us Love and Sing and WonderRev. John Newton, 1774
Let Worldly Minds the World PursueRev. John Newton, 1774
Lord, Dost Thou Say, "Ask What Thou Wilt?"Rev. John Newton, 1779
Lord, I Cannot Let Thee GoRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
May He, by Whose Kind Care We MeetRev. John Newton, 1779
May the Grace of Christ Our SaviorRev. John Newton, 1779
My Savior Hanging on the TreeRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Now, Gracious Lord, Thine Arm RevealRev. John Newton, 1779
Now May He, Who from the DeadRev. John Newton, 1779
On What Has Now Been SownRev. John Newton, 1779
Once I Thought My Mountain StrongRev. John Newton, 1779
One There Is, Above All OthersRev. John Newton, 1779
Pour Down Thy Spirit, Gracious LordRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Quiet, Lord, My Froward HeartRev. John Newton, 1779
Rejoice, Believer in the LordRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Safely Through Another WeekRev. John Newton, 1774
Savior, Visit Thy PlantationRev. John Newton, 1779
Sinner, Art Thou Still Secure?Rev. John Newton, 1779
Sinner, Hear Thy Savior’s CallRev. John Newton, 1779
Sweet Was the Time When First I FeltRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Sweeter Sounds Than Music KnowsRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
Though Troubles Assail, and Dangers AffrightRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
’Tis a Point I Long to KnowRev. John Newton, 1779
When Israel, by Divine CommandRev. John Newton (1725-1807)
While with Ceaseless Course the SunRev. John Newton, 1774
Why Should I Fear the Darkest Hour?Rev. John Newton (1725-1807)