Posted by: rcottrill | July 24, 2010

Today in 1725 – John Newton Born

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:

Amazing Grace
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

Graphic How Sweet the Name of JesusIn 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.


  1. […] more about John Newton and his hymns, see Today in 1725, and the second item under Today in […]

  2. […] of John Newton’s hymns, his birth (see Today in 1725), and his death (see second item under Today in 1849) reveal the tremendous contribution he has […]

  3. I did a Black History Month presentation on John Newton. There is a lot of folk lore out there about him and “Amazing Grace,” so I tried to point out that the details of his life were fairly sketchy, and picked what I felt was the best material for my presentation.

    • Interesting. Did you make any startling discoveries? I have Newton’s autobiographical Out of the Depths, plus a facsimile copy of Olney Hymns, and of course many other second hand resources. Not a perfect man, by any means. But still an important hymn writer who has given us some wonderful texts.

      • I posted it here in four parts.

        I think the autobiography would have helped!

        Wintley Phipps says some things here that are not historically accurate. For instance, the tune “New Britten” came well after Newton’s death. That being said, it still could have come over on a slave ship, but we just don’t know.

        Oh, and if you read the presentation, feel free leave corrections in the comment box.

      • You’ve covered a lot of ground in a short space. It is important to indicate, as you do, that Newton did not suddenly become enlightened about the evils of slavery at the instant of his conversion. He was a man of his time. But as he continued to grow spiritually, his attitudes changed.

        The other thing I find so interesting is that “Amazing Grace” was virtually unknown in North America prior to 1970. To my knowledge, it never appeared on any “Top 10” poll of favourite hymns until folk singer Judy Collins recorded it, and it made the secular Hit Parade. Now, this hymn and “How Great Thou Art” are usually either #1 or #2.

  4. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  5. […] (2) Today in 1807 – John Newton Died John Newton spent his early life as a profane sailor and a slave trader. Even his fellow crew members, a blaspheming lot themselves, shuddered to hear some of the terrible oaths that came from his mouth. But the Lord got hold of his life, and he was dramatically saved. He studied Greek and Hebrew and eventually entered the ministry, becoming the pastor of the little church in Olney, England. For the rest of his life, he marveled at the amazing grace of God, making it the subject of his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace–though he wrote at least 280 others. (For more about Newton and his hymns, see Today in 1725.) […]

  6. […] Wordwise Hymns (Newton born, hymn written, Newton died) The Cyber […]

  7. […] Wordwise Hymns (John Newton born) The Cyber […]


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