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John Newton: Hymn Writer and Minister

John NewtonJohn Newton: Church of England; joint author with Cowper of the Olney Hymns; born in London, [England], July 24, 1725; died there December 21, 1807. He was the son of a shipmaster in the Mediterranean service, with whom he sailed until 1742. In 1743 he was impressed into the English naval service, was made midshipman, deserted, was recaptured and reduced to the ranks, exchanged to a ship in the African station, became servant to a slave-trader, and was rescued in 1748, being converted on the way home in a storm at sea.

He continued to follow the sea till 1754, meanwhile studying Latin and the Bible. He was surveyor of tides at Liverpool, 1755-60, where he heard Whitefield and Wesley, and studied Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. In 1763 he was brought to the notice of Lord Dartmouth by Thomas Haweis, through whose influence he was made deacon and priest, 1764, and given the curacy of Olney. In 1767 Cowper settled there, and the result of their very close intimacy was the Olney Hymns (London, 1779 and often), which greatly influenced English hymnology. In 1780 he accepted the offer of the benefice of St. Mary Woolnoth with St. Mary Woolchurch, London, where he officiated till his death.

Hardly less famous than the Hymns was his Authentic Narrative of Some . . . Particulars in the Life of John Newton (London, 1764, 9th. ed., 1799; an account of his early life). He wrote also, Sermons Preached in . . . Olney (1767); Omicron: Twenty-six Letters on Religious Subjects (1774; subsequent editions, in which the number of the letters became forty-one); Cardiphonia; or, the Utterance of the Heart in the Course of a real Correspondence (2 vols., 1781); Letters to a Wife (2 vols., 1793), and other works. A collected edition of his works was issued by his executors (6 vols., London, 1808; new ed., 12 vols., 1821).

He was a strong support of the Evangelicals in the Church of England, and was a friend of the dissenting clergy as well as of the ministry of his own church. One of the questions much debated is whether the influence of the sternly Calvinistic Newton on Cowper was good. It is possible that this Calvinistic trend gave Cowper's works a gloomy cast; on the other hand, it may have been the tonic which he required.

Bibliography: In an edition of Newton's Works, Edinburgh, 1827, is a life by R. Cecil; The Authentic Narrative, ut sup., is of course a first-hand source, while the Letters and Cardiphonia contain much that is biographical. Consult Letters and Conversational Remarks, ed. J. Campbell, London, 1808; DNB, xl. 395-398; S. W. Duffield, English Hymns, pp. 248-255, New York, 1886; Julian, Hymnology, pp. 803-804.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge... New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1910.

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