Notes from Dr. Julian's Hymnology:
John Newton was born in London, July 24th. 1725 and died there on Dec. 21st. 1807. He occupied a 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 11, 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, when she was only in her 14th. year.
A chance reading of Thomas à Kempis sowed the seed of his conversion; which quickened under the awful contemplation 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 a life-long friendship with Cowper [and helped him when Cowper had severe bouts of depression, F.W.] 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, Woolmoth, 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 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 in 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 enquirers, with which he maintained patient, loving and generally judicious correspondence of which a monument remains in the often beautiful letters of "Cardiphonia".
As a hymn-writer, Montgomery says that he was distanced by Cowper. But Lord Selbourne's contrast of the "manliness" of Newton and the "tenderness" of Cowper is far juster. A comparison 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, Well deserves the Name of Friend" 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, structure, cadence and almost tenderness, superior 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 withdrawal of God's face, coincident with the never-failing conviction of acceptance in the Beloved. The feeling can be seen in the speeches, writings and diaries of his whole life .... A large number of Newton's hymns have some personal history connected with them or were associated with circumstances of importance.
John Newton wrote his own epitaph, and he said, "I earnestly desire that no other monument, and no inscription but to this import, may be attempted for me".
"John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, preserved, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy".
John Newton's hymns in 'Spiritual Songs' are:
17 May the grace of Christ our Saviour
54 How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
303 When Israel by divine command
425 When troubles assail and dangers affright
No. 17 is an appeal for unity among the people of God. No. 54 is a classic and is always sung with appreciation of the Lord. The history of God's faithfulness with Israel is an encouragement in no. 303 — "Israel's God is ours", and Newton draws on his own experiences in danger when he confidently asserts in no. 425, "The Lord will provide". Of late years great prominence has been given to a beautiful hymn of Newton's, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound". Unfortunately it was used for commercial gain by being sung by a 'pop' singer, and gained a high rating in the pop charts. However, God in His great mercy which He showed to Newton may have used the hymn/pop song for someone's blessing.