Newton’s story is among the better known in English hymnody. For years he was the blaspheming captain of a slave ship. But the Lord got hold of his life and everything changed. From that day until he died he never ceased to marvel at the “amazing grace” of God. Grace is God’s unmerited favour. It is God freely giving to us blessings we did not earn and do not deserve. And it was his overwhelming joy in that that led John Newton to write:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
What we commonly sing as the last stanza of this great hymn was not written by Newton. It was added later. In fact, we do not know who wrote it. But it does provide a great summing up of the song. Because of God’s wonderful grace, we have not only the forgiveness of our sins now, but the prospect of eternal joy and blessing in His presence in the heavenly kingdom. And,
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
When almost 40 years of age Newton became the pastor of the Anglican church in the little English village of Olney. Renowned poet William Cowper was a member of his congregation. Together, they produced a new hymn book, Olney Hymns, in 1779. Newton contributed 280 of the hymn texts, and Cowper 68. Quite a few of Newton’s hymns still appear in hymnals today. Among them:
Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds
I Saw One Hanging on the Tree
May the Grace of Christ Our Saviour
Safely Through Another Week
In the accompanying picture you can see the first 3 stanzas of How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, exactly as they appear in 1779’s Olney Hymns. Notice that the lower case “s” in those days was sometimes printed similarly to the letter “f,” making the text look decidedly odd to the modern reader. (The heading refers to the words of the Song of Solomon 1:3, “Your name is ointment poured forth.”)
The original of Stanza 5 of this hymn begins, “Jesus! My Shepherd, Husband, Friend.” And in spite of the fact that the Bible portrays Christ as the heavenly Bridegroom, and the church as His bride (cf. II Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-9), most editors today substitute the word Brother for Husband.
However, they may possibly have missed Newton’s intention. As a former sea captain, he would have known that the man in charge of the ship’s food stores and provisions back then was called the ship’s husband. It may have been in the sense of being our heavenly Provider that the term was originally meant to apply to Christ.
John Newton’s testimony was much like that of the Apostle Paul whose reputation in the early church was, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1:23). Both men were objects of God’s amazing grace! To read about Newton’s death, see the second item under Today in 1849.
(2) Today in 1954 – James McConnell Died
As a child in the early 1950’s, I can recall watching a television show called “Smilin’ Ed’s Gang,” sponsored by Buster Brown Shoes, and starring “Smilin’ Ed McConnell.” The show featured stories and songs, and an impudent puppet called Froggy the Gremlin. James Edwin McConnell had originated the show on radio, and brought it briefly to television, before his death in 1954. (Actor Andy Devine took over the show from there.)
But Mr. McConnell had a more serious side. The son of a Baptist pastor, he was involved in evangelistic work, singing, playing the piano, and leading choirs at the meetings. In addition, he hosted radio programs of hymns. And he wrote the tunes (and sometimes the words as well) for a number of gospel songs.
One of these is the 1921 song He’s a Friend of Mine (not to be confused with Jesus Is a Friend of Mine, by John Sammis and Daniel Towner). James McConnell provided the music for Avis Christiansen’s text. You can see the song and hear the melody on the Cyber Hymnal.
I’ve a blest Companion ever at my side;
He’s my Lord and Saviour, and He’s my Guide;
I am trusting daily in His love divine;
He’s a Friend of mine.
Jesus is a Friend of mine,
Friend of mine, a Friend of mine;
Sweeter ever sweeter, is His love divine;
Jesus is a Friend of mine.
When I meet temptations Jesus bears me through,
Gives me blessèd vict’ry and keeps me true;
Heaven’s golden sunlight round my path doth shine;
He’s a Friend of mine.