None of our hymn-writers has had a history so remarkable as that of John Newton, who wrote this noble hymn. He was born in London, [England], July 24, 1725. His mother was a pious woman, who taught him the Catechism and many other good things; but she died when the lad was only six years old.
His father was a sea-captain, and could not supply the place of a mother. He took the boy to sea when he was eleven years old, and the young fellow learned to curse and blaspheme, and became very wild. After his father retired from the sea, the son made several voyages by himself. At one time he was forced into the navy, a war being expected, and he became a midshipman. But he was very restless and he deserted, was caught, stripped, whipped severely, and degraded to the ranks.
By this time he had become a thorough infidel, and was steeped in all kinds of sin. He fell into the hands of a slave-trader in Africa, and suffered all manner of hardships there, being continually insulted and almost starved. Delivered providentially from that terrible situation, after many strange and hazardous adventures he became a slave-trader himself, and made several voyages to Africa in that shameful occupation.
The reading of Thomas à Kempis, the fearful experiences of a storm at sea in which his ship was almost lost, his deliverance from a severe fever in Africa, — these, and other experiences, at last awoke in the sinful man the memories of the religion his mother had taught him, and he turned from his sins with true repentance.
His conversion [to Jesus Christ] was so complete that he became a minister of the gospel. This was in 1764, when he was thirty-nine years old. He settled in Olney, England, and there it was that he formed the beautiful friendship with William Cowper which has given to the world so many splendid hymns. Some think that it was with the desire to draw Cowper's mind away from his deep melancholy that Newton proposed that the two should compose a series of hymns together. Of the famous collection that resulted, "The Olney Hymns," Cowper is said to have written sixty-six, while Newton wrote the rest of the three hundred and forty-nine. But more of Cowper's hymns than of Newton's have become famous.
"Safely through another week" is one of Newton's hymns that is most often sung. Others are : "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds," "Approach, my soul, the mercy seat," "Come, my soul, thy suit prepare," "For a season called to part," "Great Shepherd of Thy ransomed flock," "In evil long I took delight " (which surely paints his own experiences), "Jesus! who knows full well," "Lord! I cannot let Thee go," "One there is above all others," "Quiet, Lord! my froward heart," "Saviour, visit Thy plantation," "Sometimes a light surprises," "'Tis a point I long to know," "While with ceaseless course the sun," and still others that are found in most of our hymn-books.
But the greatest of all the hymns of John Newton is "Glorious things of thee are spoken." It is a noble description of the people of God, under the protection of their supreme leader. Newton wrote five stanzas, and you will like to see all of them. The last two, however, are inferior to the first three, and are seldom printed in our hymn-books.
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God!
He, whose word cannot be broken,
Form'd thee for His own abode:
On the Rock of ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation's walls surrounded,
Thou may'st smile at all thy foes.
See! the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love,
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove.
Who can faint when such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace, which, like the Lord, the giver,
Never fails from age to age.
Round each habitation hov'ring,
See the cloud and fire appear!
For a glory and a cov'ring,
Showing that the Lord is near;
Thus deriving, from their banner,
Light by night, and shade by day:
Safe they feed upon the manna
Which He gives them when they pray.
Bless'd inhabitants of Zion,
Wash'd in the Redeemer's blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God.
'Tis His love His people raises
Over self to reign as kings,
And as priests, His solemn praises
Each for a thank-off'ring brings.
Saviour, if of Zion's city
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name:
Fading is the worldling's pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show:
Solid joys and lasting treasure,
None but Zion's children know.
"Olney Hymns" was published in 1779. In that year Newton became rector of a church in London, and died there December 31, 1807. Thus he had a long life after his conversion. It was a very useful life. Wesley and Whitefield were his friends. Among his converts were Claudius Buchanan, the great missionary to the East Indies, and Thomas Scott, the eminent Bible commentator. He preached almost to the time of his death, asking, "Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?" And he still preaches through his strong and spirited hymns.
From A Treasure of Hymns... by Amos R. Wells. Boston: United Society of Christian Endeavor, ©1914.
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