I love hymns. Hymns have ministered to my life in a number of ways when I was feeling broken or downtrodden. And one of the things I look forward to most on Sundays is getting to sing with my brothers and sisters in the faith. I also love history. I love knowing the “why” behind characters in the past. Thus, my curiosity spiked at the thought of getting to know the man behind some of the world’s most famous hymns, including “Amazing Grace.” Meet John Newton.
John Newton: Life & Background
John Newton was born on July 25th, 1725 to John Sr. and Elizabeth Newton. Elzabeth Newton died while our John Newton was still very young, and John Sr., as a captain, would eventually get John Jr. on the water as early as 10 years of age. Ultimately, through a variety of providential circumstances John Newton became a seaman and ultimately would become the captain of a slave ship.
Newton’s life prior to conversion was hedonism and licentiousness at its finest. Outside of operating a slave ship, he was known to partake in immoralities that would make many of us blush today, as well as being infamous on some of his early transatlantic journeys for his blasphemies. And like a good songwriter, he would craft songs vilifying his captain. If the apostle Paul was the chief of sinners, then John Newton was certainly very close in the running.
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However, through a conversion not dissimilar to Jonah or the Apostle Paul, Newton would eventually come to trust in the Lord in the midst of a very terrifying storm on the sea. Soon after this conversion experience, Newton would quit slave trading and ultimately sense a call to pastoral ministry. After some time in the Anglican system, Newton would eventually be placed as a pastor of a small parish in Olney, a town Northwest of London.
While Newton said of Olney that the people “are mostly poor — the country low and dirty,” he would eventually come to love the parish community. He began several ministries, but the one that he flourished at was his hymn writing ministry.
In Olney, Newton would create and compile one of his life’s greatest works, the Olney Hymnbook, alongside his beloved friend William Cowper. The Olney hymnbook has given us hymns like Newton’s “I Asked the Lord,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and even “Amazing Grace.” Cowper himself, the greater poet of the two, would write and publish hymns like “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and the magisterial “God Moves In Mysterious Ways.” It is a gold mine of rich Christ-centered, gospel-saturated hymns.
However, for our purposes, the story of how many of these hymns took their shape is of particular significance. Let’s now look at three things we can learn from Newton’s hymn writing and pastoral ministry.
3 Things We Learn From Newton’s Hymn Writing and Pastoral Ministry
1. He wrote hymns as a pastoral aide for the congregation.
Newton began writing hymns originally for children. He would read them Bible stories, write them poems, and craft hymns for them to sing that aimed to take the truths of God and impact their hearts. While his friend William Cowper far exceeded him in poetic skill, Newton was a master of writing hymns that were both easy to remember and Scripturally true. He would eventually start writing hymns that would accompany his sermons and, utilizing his and Cowper’s creative mind, they would shepherd their congregation through the power of song.
It’s important to remember that Newton, before a hymn writer, was a pastor. The hymns existed as an aide for the congregation to help them remember and implant scriptural truths in creative and poetic ways. He knew that, like the apostle Paul, theology should not start and stop at the mind, but ultimately affect the heart and result in praise on the lips of God’s people. Hymns were that such means that could act as a mediating agent between the head and the heart.
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2. He wrote hymns in community.
If it were not for the friendship between Cowper and Newton, the Olney hymnbook would never have been. While Cowper battled chronic depression most of his life, one of the things that would help him were his collaborative labors with Newton on writing hymns. On top of that, Newton thrived on Cowper’s creativity.
One of Newton’s biographers put it this way:
The combination of two talented writers, an appreciative audience, and a contemporary rise in the general popularity of English hymnody. . .all coincided in Olney in the early 1770’s. The strongest factor was the mutual stimulation. Creative sparks often flew when Newton and Cowper conversed; so it was natural for them to cooperate on what the preface called “an original design” for a jointly authored hymnbook. (Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, p. 215)
The biographer would say of Newton and Cowper that they were “kindred” spirits. Sadly, Cowper’s story would become one of the most tragic in the history of the church.
Newton’s biographer continues:
…for on Friday, January 1, 1773, an hour or two after hearing Newton preach at the morning service in church, Cowper was walking in the fields around Olney when he was struck by a terrible premonition that the curse of madness was about to fall on him again (he had previous suffered from severe bouts of depression / madness). Struggling to make a declaration of his faith in poetic form before his mind was enclosed in the darkness of depression, he struggled home, picked up his pen, and wrote a hymn that many regard as a literary and spiritual masterpiece. (Aitken, John Newton, p. 217)
The hymn was “God Moves In Mysterious Ways,” one of the most famous hymns ever composed, and it was written by a man who was on the cusp of insanity.
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It was not long after that Cowper descended into madness. A madness so crippling that he, in the midst of horrifying nightmares, would try to take his own life. And after this episode, he never stepped inside of the Olney church again.
This was obviously a crippling thing for Newton. He wrote to one of his friends about Cowper’s madness saying that it was “mysterious . . . a very great trial to me. But I hope I am learning (though I am a slow scholar) to silence all vain reasonings and unbelieving complaints with the consideration of the Lord’s sovereignty, wisdom and love.”
It is speculated that Newton debuted “Amazing Grace” at the last church service for William Cowper that fateful morning. Could it have been that he wrote a hymn expositing the immeasurable grace of God with Cowper in mind? We’ll never know. But we do know that had it not been for Newton’s pastoral sensitivity, friendship with Cowper, and hard work, we would not have the Olney hymnbook, which means we would not have “Amazing Grace.”
3. He wrote word-shaped, Christ-centered hymns that aimed to take scriptural truths and utilize them for God’s glory.
John Newton loved the Bible, and he loved the grace of God given to him in calling him to be a Christian. He was gospel-centered 300 years before being gospel-centered was cool. Like we mentioned above, he used hymn writing as a way to apply scriptural truths and lodge them in the minds of his people.
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He said this about his approach to hymn writing.
There is a style and manner suited to the composition of hymns that may be more successfully, or at least more easily, attained by a versifier than by a poet. They should be HYMNS, not ODES, if designed for public worship and for the use of plain people. Perspicuity (clearness), 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 judgment. (Aitken, John Newton, p. 226)
Newton knew that for a hymn to truly be successful, it must rightly apply scriptural truth, but in such a way that would actually help the people learn, not confuse them. He would have no patience for “flowery language” for its own sake. Newton’s primary objective in writing hymns was to serve God and his parishioners — not his own creative curiosity.
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To Sum It Up:
Thus three things we can learn from Newton are that he wrote hymns as a pastoral aide for the congregation; he wrote hymns in community; and he wrote word-shaped, Christ-centered hymns that aimed to take scriptural truths and utilize them for God’s glory.
As worship leaders, I pray that you’ll see yourself first, like Newton, as a pastor. May you think of your songwriting as a ministry to your people and not an advancement for gain. Write with others, and write on your knees with your Bible’s open, so that God’s people may be encouraged and persevere on their pilgrimage to the celestial city.
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