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John Newton, English Hymn Writer and Preacher

John NewtonJohn Newton (1725-1807), English divine, was born in London on the 24th of July 1725. His father, who for a long time was master of a ship in the Mediterranean trade, became in 1748 governor of York Fort, Hudson Bay, where he died in 1751.

The lad had little education and served on his father's ship from 1737 to 1742; shortly afterwards he was impressed on board a man-of-war, the "Harwich," where he was made a midshipman. For an attempt to escape while his ship lay off Plymouth he was degraded, and treated with so much severity that he gladly exchanged into an African trader. He made many voyages as mate and then as master on slave-trading ships, devoting his leisure to the improvement of his education.

The state of his health and perhaps a growing distaste for the slave trade led him to quit the sea in 1755, when he was appointed tide-surveyor at Liverpool. He began to study Greek and Hebrew, and in 1758 applied to the archbishop of York for ordination. This was refused him, but, having had the curacy of Olney offered to him in April 1764, he was ordained by the bishop of Lincoln.

In October 1767, William Cowper settled in the parish. An intimate friendship sprang up between the two men, and they published together the Olney Hymns (1779). In 1779 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, where he laboured with unceasing diligence and great popularity till his death on the 31st of December 1807.

Like Cowper, Newton held Calvinistic views, although his evangelical fervour allied him closely with the sentiments of Wesley and the Methodists. His fame rests on certain of the Olney Hymns (e.g. "Glorious things of Thee are spoken," "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds," "One there is above all others,") remarkable for vigour, simplicity and directness of devotional utterance.

His prose works include an Authentic Narrative of some Interesting and Remarkable Particulars in the Life of John Newton (1764), a volume of Sermons (1767), Omicron (a series of letters on religion, 1774), Review of Ecclesiastical History (1769) and Cardiphonia (1781). This last was a farther selection of religious correspondence, which did much to help the Evangelical revival. Thomas Scott, William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, William Jay and Hannah More all came under his direct influence. His Letters to a Wife (1793) and Letters to Rev. W. Bull (posthumous, 1847) illustrate the frankness with which he exposed his most intimate personal experiences. A Life of Newton by Richard Cecil was prefixed to a collected edition of his works (6 vols., 1808; 1 vol. 1827). See also T. Wright, The Town of Cowper.

From The Encyclopædia Britannica. 11th ed. New York: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911.

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