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 Expectations’ .
- 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.
When was 'Amazing Grace' written?
It is highly likely that ‘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 Marylynn Rouse of the John Newton Project. She has connected information 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.
What is Amazing Grace about?
John had decided to base his sermon on 1 Chronicles 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 lacemakers, 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 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.’
To what tune was Amazing Grace sung?
We don’t know for sure but Marylynn Rouse of 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.
When did John & William start writing the Olney Hymns?
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 church services.
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)
- 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 is 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?
- 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 all the hymns into 2 notebooks before going to print. 1 book is missing but the other 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.
- Marylynn Rouse has connected the information in this notebook with John’s diary to work out 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.
Amazing Grace Hymn
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 from the 1st edition of the Olney Hymns, 1779, Book 1, Hymn 41
John Newton and Amazing Grace Today
We in Olney, through the Olney Newton Link, continue to support villagers in Sierra Leone whose ancestors suffered so. We also recognise that the slave trade continues today, albeit in most cases under cover of criminal activities.
Using Amazing Grace as a theme and having no control over content, we offer links below to other websites you may find interesting and inspiring.
|The John Newton Project||Oh, it was mercy indeed to save a wretch like me!|
John Newton wrote these words in his journal on 21 March 1796 (at the age of 70), 48 years after his conversion.
|Amazing Grace being used for a special family. We feel sure John Newton would have approved,||This shows how a very special village comes together to help one of their own in what must be a unique project with over half the local population singing 'Amazing Grace' to raise money for Berni Cliffe's cancer treatment. - (quotation from http://www.audlem.org/newsroom/breaking-news-amazing-grace-film.html)|
|The Olney Newton Link||The Olney Newton Link's aim is to advance education and relieve poverty in Newton, Sierra Leone by the provision of charitable assistance.|
|Amazing Grace and its connection with Lough Swilly||Ireland's beautiful Lough Swilly was the setting for a dramatic story which changed the life of a foul mouthed slave trader. John Newton went on to pen one of the most famous and well-loved songs of all time - "Amazing Grace" and to mentor William Wilberforce in his long battle to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.|
|Amazing Grace Experience|
|Discover more about the John Newton's story the song "Amazing Grace" and the beautiful island of St Kitts. Be inspired to continue Newton's fight by discovering more about slavery in today's world.|
|Obama & Amazing Grace||Obama sings Amazing Grace during eulogy for Charleston pastor|
|British Abolitionists||wesite of Brycchan Carey , academic and author specialising in the history and culture of slavery and abolition in the British Empire.|
|The Abolition Project website||The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Thomas Clarkson and his fellow abolitionists who fought for emancipation of enslaved Africans in the British colonies.|
|Amazing Grace in Jerusalem||Amazing Grace sung on the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem. To watch video cue in at 13:43 into the recording - thanks to acl.asn.au)|
Commemorative bench in the museum garden to remember Pete and Toshi Seeger
Pete encouraged 18,000 people to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ at his 90th birthday party in Madison Square Garden, New York. He loved this hymn.
(Thank you to John Yatchisin for this inspiring donation).