William Cowper (1731-1800), pronounced “Cooper”, was a renowned 18th century poet and translator of Homer. His most famous works include his 5000-line poem ‘The Task’ and some charming and light-hearted verses, not least ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’. Phrases he coined such as ‘Variety is the spice of life’ are still in popular use
Amazing Grace & The Olney Hymns
‘to my dear friends in the parish and neighbourhood of Olney, for whose use the hymns were originally composed;…’
Did you know?
- ‘Amazing Grace’ was penned by the Rev John Newton during his time here in Olney.
- ‘Amazing Grace’ was originally titled ‘Faith’s Review and Expectation’ .
- It was published by John in 1779 as hymn number XLI in a hymn book titled ‘The Olney Hymns’.
- All 348 hymns in the hymn book were written by William Cowper or John Newton.
Discover more about Amazing Grace and the Olney Hymns in our new virtual exhibition
When was 'Amazing Grace' written?
It is highly likely that the hymn, ‘Faith’s Review and Expectation’ (Amazing Grace’), was written by John in the weeks leading up to his New Year’s Day service on 1st January 1773.
The evidence for this comes from research carried out by the John Newton Project and evidence from John Newton’s sermon notebook in Lambeth Palace Library, the first edition of the ‘Olney Hymns’ as well as John’s diary which includes entries for January 1773 held by Princeton University Library.
John was at home in Olney during this time so the hymn was probably written in the top floor attic study of his Vicarage.
Tuesday 22 December 1772
‘Employed variously, sometimes composing hymns – visiting the people etc.’
The Morgan Museum and Library, John Newton Diary covering 1756 -1772
1st January 1773
‘ I preached this Forenoon from 1 Chron. 17,16,17′
Princeton University Library, John Newton Diary
What is Amazing Grace about?
For his 1773 New Year Day morning service, John preached his sermon based on 1 Chronicles 17 v 16, 17, an ideal subject for New Year’s Day. As with his hymns, John often used examples from his own life to help his congregation of lace makers, farmworkers, tradespeople, young people etc understand his message. As David is encouraged to do in this passage, John talked about looking back at life and considering who you are now, as well as looking forward to what the future might hold.
‘Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come’
The verses of the hymn Faith’s Review and Expectation, now known as Amazing Grace, were also based on 1 Chronicles 17 v 16, 17. They resonate with John’s own personal history as a recalcitrant young sailor in the shipping trade & Navy, as well as his later participation in the transatlantic slave trade. They also remind us of a day that John never forgot throughout his life when on 21st March 1748 aboard a badly stormed-damaged trading ship and fearing for his life he began his journey back to his faith:
‘Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!’
Jonathan Aiken in his book ‘Disgrace to Amazing Grace’ also suggests that John might have been looking to support his friend William Cowper who was again slipping into deep depression.
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.’
John hoped to preach without reading from a written prepared sermon, but early on he found he froze. His practice became to write his thoughts out in notebooks prior to giving his sermon.
‘Before I made the essay, I had expected to preach extempore but though I use no notes in the pulpit, I have found considerable advantage from writing my subjects beforehand; this takes up some of my mornings,..’
Letter to Lord Dartmouth 1765
The Museum owns several of John’s notebooks but the ‘Amazing Grace’ sermon notes (right) are in the Lambeth Palace Library.
”New Year’s Morning
1 Chron 17, 16,17
Faith’s review and expectation
Chap. xvii. 16,17.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the vail,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
Original words and verses from the 1st edition of the Olney Hymns, 1779, Book 1, Hymn 41
A facsimile copy of the first edition of the Olney Hymns can be purchased at the Museum or via our online shop
To what tune was Amazing Grace sung?
We don’t know for sure but The John Newton Project has also carried out research into possible tunes of the day. Visit the John Newton project website to listen to the English Chamber Choir singing ‘Amazing Grace’ to some of these tunes.
The ‘Amazing Grace’ Room at the Museum also tracks the development of the tune ‘New Britain’, the tune to which the hymn is most often sung today.
There is more information about the text development and the tune New Britain on this external website, Hymnology Archive.
We have some evidence of tunes for some of the Olney Hymns – Find out more in our article to which are added hymns &ct
There is debate as to how soon after William came to live in Olney in 1767 that the idea of publishing a collection of hymns was taken. John was already singing hymns with his congregation in group meetings at the Vicarage, Lord Dartmouth’s unoccupied Great House or in the Church, and in some services in church.
Find our more about John’s church of St Peter & St Paul in Olney in this article.
Back on the 1st January 1765, John had described to his patron Lord Dartmouth his plans for developing his groups:
‘I propose to establish three meetings … One for the children, another for the young and enquiring persons, and a third to be a meeting with the more experienced and judicious for prayer and conference.’
The meetings become so popular that there was not enough room in the Vicarage to hold all those who wanted to attend. In 1768 John was writing to Lord Dartmouth to say:
‘… we are so crowded that when the weather grows warmer we shall not be able to meet there without being greatly incommoded.’
John then went on to propose making use of ‘the large room in the great house on the right hand side; ..’ One of the rooms was already used to hold Sunday meetings, and for catechism with the children.
These meetings would often be a combination of prayer, engagement with the Bible and hymn singing (the children were often taught them by rote)
- Newton’s The Storm Hushed (‘Tis past – the dreadful stormy night / Is gone, with all its fears!) is dated to before June 1767
- We know that William had written some ‘verses’ in December 1767 which became hymn No. 3 in the ‘Olney Hymns
‘Oh for a closer Walk with God
A calm & heav’nly Frame,
A Light to shine upon the Road
That leads me to the Lamb!’
- ln November 1770 John was writing to Lord Dartmouth: ‘We have now and then a new hymn in Olney: I am willing to send your Lordship a specimen, Mr Cowper’s I shall mark with W.C.’
- And the Preface to the hymn book also clearly indicates that it was before William’s next major depression at the beginning of 1773.
What do we know about the publication of the Olney Hymns?
Discover more about the Olney Hymns in our John Newton & Amazing Grace virtual exhibition
- Prior to the publication of the hymn book, a few of the hymns had been published previously as early as 1767 in magazines such as the ‘Gospel Magazine’. John notes in his preface that other people had been putting their names to William & John’s work.
- William wrote 67 hymns before severe depression stopped him and John wrote 281.
- John transcribed hymns into 2 notebooks. The book which would contain Amazing Grace is missing but the other which contains hymns such as Glorious Things of The are Spoken is owned by the Houghton Library, Harvard University. You are able to explore Newton’s hymn notebook digitally from the Houghton Library, Harvard University website.
- The John Newton Project has identified the date and context of many of the hymns. Explore here
How famous is ‘Amazing Grace’?
The Illustrated Timeline on the American Library of Congress website gives a fascinating overview of how the 18th century English hymn became one of the best known hymns in America. Here you will be able to see and hear how the hymn evolved with information, images and sound recordings from the online catalog of the Chasanoff/Elozua Amazing Grace Collection which includes more than 3,000 published recorded performances of the hymn.
The Amazing Grace @ 250 Personal Reflection virtual collection explores the role the hymn has played in people’s lives.