The "Olney Hymns," written by John Newton and William Cowper, were first published in 1779, and have proved exceedingly useful and acceptable. The larger part of Newton's hymns are poor; but many of them, although not to be classed with Cowper's and the best productions of lyric poetry, are just such as the people love to sing. They were written at the Vicarage of Olney, an unromantic spot in Buckinghamshire. The town consisted of a single street of stone houses, most of them thatched with straw, with a parish church noted for its lofty spire. Newton and Cowper have given renown to the place and its surroundings. Its varied scenery is described in the first book of "The Task."
John Newton was born in London, England, July 24 (0.S.), August 4 (N.S.), 1725. His father, John, had been trained at a Jesuit College in Spain, and for many years was master of a ship in the Mediterranean trade. His mother, Elizabeth, was connected with the Independent Church under the care of the Rev. Dr. Jennings. John was her only child. She died when he was but seven years old. Till then, his training was of the most godly sort. His father married again the following year, but the stepmother took little heed to the boy's character. In his ninth year, he was sent to a boarding-school in Essex, and made some progress in Latin. At eleven, his father took him to sea, which he followed for four years. At the age of fifteen he was placed with good prospects, at Alicante, Spain, but through his unsteadiness he lost his position.
A place was offered him in Jamaica; and, in December, 1742, previous to the sailing of the ship, he made a three days' visit to Chatham, in Kent, to see the family of Mr. George Catlett — relatives of his deceased mother. Mary, the eldest daughter, scarcely fourteen, so charmed the young rover, that the three days were prolonged to three weeks, and the ship sailed without him. A voyage to Venice followed; and, at the expiration of a year, he returned to England. After a short stay on shore, he was impressed and taken as a sailor on board the war-ship Harwich. Influence was used, and he was promoted to the quarter-deck as a midshipman. In 1745, he deserted the ship at Plymouth, was brought back, degraded, ironed, and flogged.
He had become an infidel, and now threw off all restraint. At Madeira, he was transferred from the Harwich to a vessel bound for Sierra Leone in Africa. Entering into the service of a slave-dealer, on one of the Plaintain Islands, he suffered incredible hardships, and was reduced to the lowest straits. Informing his father of his condition, he was released (1748) from his misery, and taken on board a vessel commissioned to call for him. On the way home, they were overtaken by a storm that nearly sank the poor unseaworthy craft. It brought him to prayer and to repentance. He reached home in May, 1848 — no longer an infidel, but a Christian by conviction.
His father, before his return, had gone out to Hudson's Bay, as Governor of York Fort, and soon after died. Newton made another voyage, as mate, to the African coast. After his return, he was married, February 12, 1750, to Miss Catlett, whom he had never ceased to love devotedly since their first meeting seven years before. Two voyages, as master, to Africa and the West Indies, closed, August, 1754, his life at sea. Newton was a slave-trader, and in his two voyages carried probably not less than 500 Africans into West Indian slavery. A third voyage had been determined on, but, on the eve of sailing, an apoplectic attack intervened, and the sea was finally abandoned.
Having been appointed Tide Surveyor at Liverpool, he entered on the duties of the position in August, 1755, and held it nearly nine years. He now took an active part in meetings for prayer and mission-movements. Occasionally he was persuaded to occupy the pulpit as a lay-preacher. At length, after consultation with friends, he determined to seek orders in the Church of England. On his later voyages, he had employed his leisure in the study of Euclid and the Latin language, and for many years he had been a diligent student of theology. Five years intervened between his first application and the successful accomplishment of his purpose. At length, the Curacy of Olney was offered him by the Vicar, Rev. Moses Browne; and, by the influence of the Earl of Dartmouth, the patron of Olney, he was admitted to orders. He was ordained deacon, April 29, 1764, and priest, June 17, 1764, at Buckden, in the thirty-ninth year of his age. He began his work at Olney, in May, and continued there an acceptable and most useful preacher and pastor, nearly sixteen years. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin became residents of Olney, and near neighbors of Newton, in September, 1767.
In August, 1764, he published "An Authentic Narrative of some remarkable and interesting Particulars in the Life of Newton." He had printed a volume of six Sermons in 1760, at Liverpool. In 1767, he published another volume of Sermons, twenty in number. His "Review of Ecclesiastical History" was issued in November, 1769. He wrote a Series of twenty-six Letters for The Gospel Magazine, with the signature of "Omicron," which, in July, 1774, were published in one volume. The "Olney Hymns" appeared in 1779, just at the close of his Curacy. His "Cardiphonia; or, The Utterance of the Heart, in the Course of a Real Correspondence," was published in 1781; his "Apologia: Four Letters to a Minister of an Independent Church," in 1784; also, "A Plan of Academical Preparation for the Ministry," and eight papers contributed to the Theological Miscellany. "A Monument to the Lord's Goodness" was issued in 1785, in memory of his beloved niece Eliza Cunningham, who died that year. In 1786, he published his "Messiah: Fifty Expository Discourses, on the Series of Scriptural Passages, which form the Subject of the celebrated Oratorio of Handel"; in 1787, his "Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade"; in 1791, "Christian Character Exemplified," in the case of Mrs. Margaret Althaus; and, in 1793, in two volumes, his "Letters to a Wife."
His friend, John Thornton, in August, 1779, presented him to the Rectory of the united parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch Haw, London; and he entered upon his work there in December. His beloved and idolized wife was taken from him, December 15, 1790, dying from the effects of a cancer. His own death occurred, December 21, 1807, in his eighty-third year, and in the forty-fourth year of his ministry. He was buried in a vault under his church, and the following inscription, composed by himself, and engraved on a marble tablet, perpetuates his memory:
"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, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long labored to destroy."
Newton was a sailor to the last, in his habits, his talk, and, to some extent, his apparel. His language in the pulpit was remarkably simple, yet always correct. His seafaring life had furnished him with a rich and varied experience, from which he was ever drawing forcible illustrations of divine truth. It appears continually in his poetry. Who, but a sailor, could have written the following hymn?—
"The billows swell, the winds are high,
Clouds overcast my wintry sky;
Out of the depths to thee I call,
My fears are great, my strength is small.
"O Lord! the pilot's part perform,
And guide and guard me through the storm;
Defend me from each threatening ill,
Control the waves! —say,— 'Peace! be still!'
"Amidst the roaring of the sea,
My soul still hangs her hope on thee;
Thy constant love, thy faithful care,
Is all that saves me from despair.
"Dangers of every shape and name
Attend the followers of the Lamb,
Who leave the world's deceitful shore,
And leave it to return no more.
"Though tempest-tossed, and half a wreck,
My Saviour, through the floods, I seek;
Let neither winds, nor stormy rain,
Force back my shattered bark again."