When the ‘Olney Hymns’ hymnal was published in 1779, Rev’d John Newton noted in the Preface that some of the hymns had previously appeared in other publications.
Copies of a few of these Hymns have already appeared in periodical publications, and in some recent collections. I have observed one or two of them attributed to persons who certainly had no concern in them, but as transcribers. All that have been at different times parted with in manuscript are included in the present volume; and (if the information were of any great importance) the public may be assured, that the whole number were composed by two persons only.
The ‘two persons’ were, of course, himself and William Cowper, his friend and local resident at Orchard Side, now the Cowper & Newton Museum. Find out more about the Olney Hymns
One publication which included some of these earlier published hymns was Newton’s Twenty Six Letters on Religious Subjects to which are added Hymns, &c. by Omicron ( 1774). Omicron was a pen name used by Newton at that time.
When published in the 1779 first edition of the Olney Hymns, some hymns had changes to their text and title. For example, Newton’s Every Creature at God’s Command became Elijah fed by ravens and Before Sermon became ELIJAH’s prayer.
Several hymns had also been published prior to the Olney Hymns in the Gospel Magazine. For example:
1771: Newton: In uno Jesu omnia (Oh Jesus my all)
Newton: Cheer up, my soul
Cowper: The love of Christ
1774: Newton: Elijah’s example declares
Newton: Let us love and sing and wonder
Cowper: Light shining out of darkness
1777: Newton: The Lord Will Provide (In the OH this title is given to Cowper’s hymn Bk1/6 whilst Newton’s hymn Bk1/7 is given the title Though Troubles Assail )
Tunes for the Olney Hymns
In 1780 and 1781, The Gospel Magazine printed tunes by Newton’s friend, the Rev’d Thomas Bowman to some of the hymns in the Olney Hymns . Two of the tunes were for hymns in the Twenty Six Letters.
The Beggar (Encouraged by thy word of promise to the poor) published in January 1780.
The Word of God more precious than gold (Precious Bible! what a treasure) in September 1780.
In total, nine Bowman tunes can be located within the digitised copies of the Gospel Magazine for the years 1780 and 81.
Another Hymn and Another Bowman Tune
In 1771, an edition of the Gospel Magazine included the words for An Hymn, the first line being Cheer up, my soul, there is a throne of grace.
In the first edition of the Olney Hymns, this became the hymn, The effort. The first line was also changed to Cheer up, my soul, there is a mercy seat.
Another of the Bowman tunes in the Gospel Magazine was paired with the words for this hymn.
1770 – A Hymn & a Tune for Olney
Fortuitously, letters from Newton to Bowman survive for the year 1770 in which the two friends are ‘trading hymns for tunes’.
I shall be much obliged to you if at your leisure you will compose and transmit me a Tune. Four lines. ten syllables in a line, (…) When I have the Tune I think to make a hymn to it, which if tolerable I will send you in exchange.
In the next letter in the collection, Newton writes;
My dear friend
I thank you for your tune, to which I have given the name Sherbro. (…) I now send you the Hymn I have composed to this Tune.
Newton goes on to say:
We have as yet only heard your tune in the Family. Tonight it is to be sung for the first time at the Great House.
The first line of the hymn is ‘Cheer up my soul, there is a Mercy seat’
Cheer up my soul, there is a mercy seat played and sung in the Parlour at the Cowper & Newton Museum. The Newtons owned a harpsichord at the Vicarage in Olney
Singer: Paul Collins
Harpsichord: Andrew Boulter
The letters also suggest how the hymns were sung in Olney:
Two parts will be sufficient for Olney, for we cannot sing any more.
(n.b. The ‘Two’ is indistinct and warrants further investigation)
In a letter from 1774, Newton also mentioned that The Gospel Magazine was talking about ‘giving a hymn tune in each number,…’ and suggested that they would be thankful for ‘his [Bowman] help sometimes in that department.’
However, it is not until a letter in January 1781 that we finally see Newton referring to the Bowman tunes to the Olney Hymns being included in the magazine.
Another tune for Olney?
The June 1771 edition of the Gospel Magazine printed verses titled In uno Jesu omnia. In the Olney Hymns this became Newton’s JESUS my all. As there is also a Bowman tune for this hymn, how confident can we be that this tune would also have been sung and heard in Olney during the time that Newton was the curate at St Peter & St Paul?
Twenty Six Letters on Religious Subjects
The hymns from Newton’s Twenty Six Letters on Religious Subjects to which are added Hymns, &c. by Omicron were placed after the twenty-six letters. This might suggest that it was the letters on which Newton placed most value.
It is also in the Gospel Magazine that the vast majority of these letters were first published. In the April 1771 edition can be found Newton’s poem, The Kite: or, Pride must have a fall (also to be found in a 1770 letter to Bowman). Thereafter, from May 1771 to April 1773, twenty-three of the letters were included in the monthly editions.
A Year of Grace – a postscript
In 1772, once again in the Gospel Magazine, three letters appeared which Professor Bruce Hindmarsh tells us were originally written to Newton’s patron, John Thornton, in response to his question about ‘how Newton thought the work of divine grace typically progressed in a believer.’ These three letters are also in Twenty Six Letters.
A, or Grace in the Blade (July 1772)
B, or Grace in the ear (August 1772)
C, or the full corn in the ear (September 1772)
In Twenty-six letters and the February 1772 Gospel Magazine another letter was given the title I was once blind, but now I see, and the December 1772 letter the title On hearing sermons.
On the 1st January 1773, Newton gave a sermon at his parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Olney which reflected back on the past year and looked to the future. That sermon was based on 1 Chronicles 17, v 16, 17. In the Olney Hymns Newton published a hymn titled Faith’s Review and Expectation, also based on 1 Chronicles 17, v 16, 17. That hymn is better known today as Amazing Grace.
First edition of the Olney Hymns (1779)
The Olney Hymns (1779) This digitised copy on the website of the Library of Congress contains images of Cowper and Newton which were pasted in at later date. The image of Newton is from the Gospel Magazine.
More about the Olney Hymns hymn book in the Cowper & Newton Museum collection
Apologia : Four letters to a minister of an independent church: by a minister of the Church of England (1784) In which Newton comments on the singing of hymns in church
Many of the Olney Hymns have been dated by the John Newton Project
Letters from Rev’d John Newton to Rev’d Thomas Bowman, James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Thomas Bowman, Vicar of Martham: evangelist and composer, Michael Talbot, 2016
The Life and Spirituality of John Newton, Bruce Hindmarsh, Regent College Publishing
Wise Counsel; John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr, Grant Gordon, The Banner of Truth Trust (On a believer’s frames / On frames)