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"How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds"

by J. M. K.

John NewtonToday I want to say a few words about a hymn we all love, and never grow weary of: "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds."

It was written by a most remarkable man, John Newton. In his young days he was very wild and wicked — a sinner of the blackest dye, but by the grace of God, he was converted, and became one of the holiest of saints, and the writer of this and of many other beautiful hymns.

The secret of his salvation lay in the happy fact that he had had one of God's greatest and best gifts; a godly, praying mother. She died when he was only seven, but she had so stored his mind with texts and Bible teaching, she had so prayed for him, and dedicated him to God, that her influence never left him; and in due time her prayers were answered, and her labours were rewarded.

What a call we have here, to every mother, at once to decide to come to Christ, and to love, and serve, and follow Him. Come, dear mothers, if only for the sake of your dear children, that you, too, may win them for God's service here, and for Heaven, in the Life Beyond.

John Newton was born in London, July 24, 1725. He was an only child. His father was a sea captain; his mother a godly, praying woman. She died when John was only seven. At the age of ten the little motherless lad went to sea with his father. The young boy was thrown amongst a lot of loose and abandoned companions, and he quickly learnt their evil ways; so much so, that even among them he became notorious for wickedness. He would curse and blaspheme so terribly that sometimes even the men were surprised at his depravity.

Then he was forced by the press-gang into the Navy. He was at once promoted to the rank of midshipman; but he was soon disgraced, and later dismissed for insubordination. He took service under a West African slave dealer; and was at one time captain of a slave ship, and engaged in the capture and traffic of slaves. At the age of twenty-three a ship in which he was sailing was overtaken in a terrific storm. She sprang a leak, and was thought to be sinking. In his agony and alarm John Newton cried aloud, "May the Lord have mercy upon us!" This was the first prayer he had uttered for years. The ship was saved, and he began to think. He took his Bible, and read and prayed, and slowly the light of Christ shone in upon his soul. He also came under the influence of a godly captain, who greatly helped him.

He gave up his seafaring life, and in 1750 married Mary Catlett, a true woman, and an early love of his. This pure and early attachment and his sainted mother's influence and prayers were the two merciful sheet anchors which held John Newton from destruction. Soon after his marriage he came under the influence of John Wesley and George Whitefield.

At length after eight years at Liverpool, during which time Newton used his spare time chiefly in reading theological books, and in increasing his knowledge of Greek, and Hebrew, and Latin, he was licensed, in his thirty-ninth year, to the curacy of Olney, in Buckinghamshire — where he lived and worked for fifteen years (from 1764-1779). During this time he became acquainted with the poet William Cowper, and between them they composed and published "The Olney Hymns." Of these Cowper wrote 67, while Newton contributed 281. The following are some of Newton's hymns: "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds"; "Glorious things of Thee are spoken"; "Begone, unbelief, my Saviour is near"; "Approach my soul the mercy seat"; "In evil long I took delight"; "Come my soul thy suit prepare"; "Rejoice, believer, in the Lord"; "Great Shepherd of Thy people hear"; "May the grace of Christ our Saviour."

In 1779 John Newton became the Rector of St Mary's Woolnoth, Lombard Street, in London, where for twenty-seven years more he lived and loved and laboured. The church is close to the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England. His preaching attracted large crowds. No London clergyman of that day exercised a greater influence than did John Newton. His one desire was to show what Christ had done for him, and could do for others. Two years before his death, when, on account of his age and infirmities, he was pressed to discontinue preaching, his reply was, "What, shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak!"

A sweet story of him is told, that when he was nearly eighty he was almost blind, and could scarcely see to read his manuscript sermon, so a helper stood beside him to assist him in the pulpit. One Sunday morning John Newton had twice read the words, "Jesus Christ is precious." "You have already said that twice," whispered his helper; "go on." "John," said Newton to him, "I said that twice, and I am going to say it again." The roof timbers rang as again he cried, "Jesus Christ is precious!"

On December 21st, 1807, he fell asleep in Jesus, in his eighty-third year. William Jay, of Bath, saw him not long before his death; the bright mind had become clouded and the speech affected, but the visitor carried away one precious utterance; let us never forget John Newton's dying words. He said to Mr. Jay: "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things — that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."

He was laid to rest in the chancel vault of St Mary's Woolnoth, and a simple tablet to his memory was placed on the wall behind the pulpit, bearing an inscription written by himself:


I have given you a brief outline of the life of John Newton, writer of the hymn, "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds." Now I will say a few words about the hymn itself.

In the Olney collection it contains seven verses. The fourth verse is not generally quoted. It is as follows:

"By Thee my prayers acceptance find,
  Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
  And I am owned a child."

The title of the hymn is, "The Name of Jesus," and the text given, Canticles 1:3, "Thy Name is as ointment poured forth."

The name of Jesus is, verily, more fragrant than the sweetest perfume, more full of melody than the most perfect of earth's music.

"How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
  In a believer's ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
  And drives away his fear."

A loving wife and mother lay dying. Her husband leaned over her, and said: "Do you know me, my darling?" "No," said the dying woman, "I do not know who you are." Her daughter came. "Mother, dear, surely you know me?" "No, I do not." Then her husband tried again: "Do you know Jesus, my dear one?" "Jesus," she said, and at the precious name the light came back into the pale face. "Jesus," she repeated. "Yes, I know Him. He is my Shepherd, Husband, Friend," and, even as she spoke, she passed away to be with Him for ever.

What can the name of Jesus do for you, and for me? Listen to the second and third verses. It is medicine. It can heal the wounds of sin. It is balm. It can give peace. It is food. It can satisfy the hunger of the soul. It is a soft pillow. It can give rest:

"It makes the wounded spirit whole,
  And calms the troubled breast;
'Tis manna to the hungry soul,
  And to the weary rest."

It is a sure and tried foundation, on which we can safely build. It is a protection and refuge against our enemies. It is an inexhaustible bank from which we may freely draw.

"Dear Name! the rock on which I build,
  My shield, and hiding-place,
My never-failing treasury, fill'd
  With boundless stores of grace."

The next verse tells us that the name Jesus stands for One Who is nearer and dearer than any earthly friend can be; One Who is able and willing to guide us, love us, understand us, and to be our all in all:

"Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring."

And then, how exactly the hymn goes on to describe our feebleness of feeling, the coldness of our heart; and to lament the poorness of our expressions of gratitude to this Blessed Saviour, Who has done, and is still doing, so much for us!

"Weak is the effort of my heart,
  And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art
  I'll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
  With every fleeting breath;
And may the music of Thy Name
  Refresh my soul in death.

I will end by quoting some words of the Rev. G. P. Bassett-Kerry. He says, in a paper that he wrote on this sweet hymn:

"Let our last thought be this. This hymn, which breathes such devotion to Christ, was written by one who had wandered far into the wilds of wickedness and vice. If the grace of God could so transform him, can it not do the same for us?"

"And if the name of Jesus became so precious to him, shall not we be stirred up to love it more and more?"

God has set the name of Jesus above all other names. Let us exalt it in our hearts and lives. Thus shall we prove increasingly, with John Newton,

"How sweet the name of Jesus sounds."

"Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" Acts 4:12.

From Bright Talks on Favourite Hymns... by J.M.K. London: The Religious Tract Society; Chicago: John C. Winston Co., [1916?].

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