The Olney Hymns were very popular; by 1836 there had been 37 recorded editions, and it is likely that many other editions were printed in both Britain and America. As hymn-singing gained popularity in the nineteenth century, many (around 25) of the hymns were reproduced in other hymn-books and pamphlets. Today around six of the original 384 Olney Hymns regularly feature in modern church worship, the most famous of which is 'Amazing Grace'.
The Buckinghamshire village from which the hymns get their name, Olney, was, at the time of first publication, a market town of about 2,000 people. Around 1,200 of these were employed in its main, poorly-paid, lace-making industry. As a result Olney's population was principally of a low income status; Cowper is said to have described his neighbours as 'the half-starved and ragged of the earth'. The Olney Hymns were, however, written primarily with this poor and under-educated population in mind.
Olney itself, situated near the borders of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, and Northamptonshire, places it within a region traditionally associated with religious Dissent. Dissenters were Protestants who refused to follow the rules of the Church of England after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and when Newton settled in Olney the village still supported two Dissenting chapels. Notable local Dissenters included John Bunyan, of Bedford, author of the Pilgrim's Progress, and another important hymn writer, Philip Dodderidge (1702 - 51), of Northampton. Newton, with his own associations with Dissenters (his mother was one) meant he was in a position to conciliate with, rather than confront, his parishioners, and he quickly achieved a reputation as a popular preacher. Within his first year at Olney a gallery was added to the church to increase its congregational capacity, and the weekly prayer-meetings were moved in 1769 to Lord Dartmouth's mansion, the Great House, to accommodate even greater numbers. 'Jesus where're thy people meet' was written for their first meeting at the Great House.
John Newton was an only child, and was a self-educated sea captain, at one time captaining slave ships.
Newton's 'Conversion', an essential element within the Evangelical belief, occurred during a violent storm at sea on 10 March, 1748. Newton describes the event in his autobiography, An Authentic Narrative (published 1764), and thereafter marked the anniversary of his conversion as a day of thanks-giving. This incident revived Newton's belief in God and, despite considerable reservations from within the established church (it took six years to be ordained into the Church of England), he achieved the position of priest to the village of Olney in 1764. Newton's apparent influence and charisma proved beneficial to him and his parish when local Evangelical merchant, John Thornton, to whom he had sent a copy of his autobiography, offered the parish £200 per year, requesting that Newton, in part, provided for the poor. This annual contributing ceased when Newton left in 1780 when he took the position of Rector at St. Mary Woolnoth, in London. Newton's epitaph on a plaque in St. Mary Woolnoth, written by Newton himself, bears these words:
|JOHN NEWTON, Clerk|
|Once an infidel and libertine|
|A servant of slaves in Africa,|
|Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour|
|restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach|
|the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy.|
|Near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks,|
|And twenty-eight years in this Church.|
William Cowper was the son of an Anglican clergyman and well-educated at Westminster School. Cowper was liable to bouts of severe depression throughout his adult life, and during a period in an asylum he was councilled by his cousin, Martin Madam, an Evangelical clergyman. His new enthusiasm for Evangelicalism, his 'Conversion', his and his move to Olney in 1767 brought him into contact with John Newton. Cowper eventually became an unpaid curate to Newton's church, helping with the distribution of Thornton's funds.
Cowper is best known, not just for his contribution to the Olney Hymns, but as a poet, letter-writer, and translator: his works include John Gilpin (1782), The Task (1785) and his translation of Homer, published in 1791. Cowper left Olney for nearby Weston Underwood in 1786.
The Olney Hymns are in part an expression of Newton and Cowper's personal religious faith and experience, and a reflection of the principal tenets of the Evangelical faith: the inherent sinfulness of man; Conversion; atonement; activism; devotion to the Bible; God's providence; and the belief in an eternal life after death. However, they were primarily written for immediate and day-to-day use in Newton's ministry of Olney. Here they were sung, or chanted, in church or at Newton's other Sunday and weekday meetings as a collective expression of worship. Hymn singing, though, was not without controversy, particularly within the official church, the Church of England. By the 1760s hymns had become an established feature of religious devotion in the Evangelical church, where early (post-Reformation) hymns were versifications (producing song-like verses from the original words of the psalms) of the biblical text of the psalms, known as metrical psalms. To the Church of England hymns other than metrical psalms were of questionable legality until the 1820s, as they were not explicitly sanctioned by the Book of Common Prayer. As a consequence, many church leaders reserved hymn-singing to meetings other than the main Sunday services, and for private or household devotions.
In the preface to the Hymns Newton says that: 'They should be Hymns, not Odes, if designed for public worship, and for the use of plain people'. Newton also explains his two primary motives for publishing; his desire to promote 'the faith and comfort of sincere Christians', and as a permanent record of his friendship with Cowper. Newton is attributed with suggesting that he and Cowper collaborate on a collection of hymns, ultimately drawn largely from Newton's texts accumulated over (by the time of publication) some 10 years. Of the 348 hymns in the original published edition of 1779 some commentaries state that Cowper wrote just 66 between 1772 and 1773, and Newton the remainder, while other sources attribute 67 to Cowper. It is known, however, that Newton wrote some of the hymns in direct response to events around him; 'Oh for a closer walk with God' for instance was written in response to the serious illness then being suffered by Cowper's house companion, Mary Unwin, an illness she survived.
There is no evidence to show that either Newton or Cowper wrote any music to accompany the hymns. It is assumed that they were initially sung to any suitable tune that fitted the metre (rhythm), most probably to sixteenth or seventeenth century metrical psalm tunes. Subsequently individual tunes have become linked to specific hymns from the Olney books. For example Josef Haydn's 'Austria' is associated today with the hymn 'Glorious things of thee are spoken', just as 'New Britain', an American folk melody with possible Scottish origins has, since the 1830s, been associated with 'Amazing grace'.
As an expression of the many Evangelical beliefs, 'Amazing Grace' serves as an example: the very first stanza (verse) for instance expresses Newton's sense of past sinfulness, as a 'wretch', but also conversion, from being 'lost' and 'blind' to 'now I see'. God's providence, and Cowper's sense of a close and personal relationship with God are voiced in stanza four: 'He will my shield and portion be'. The belief in eternal life after death is expressed in stanzas five and six: 'when this flesh and heart shall fail', 'I shall possess' 'A life of joy and peace', and 'God, who call'd me here below, Will be for ever mine'.
'Amazing Grace' was not the original title of this hymn: it was originally written as a poem entitled 'Faith's Review and Expectation' and appears in Book I of the Olney Hymns with the poem's title and 'hymn 41'. The six stanza version quoted is the original, as written by Newton, but it has also appeared in longer forms where others have added verses or where verses from other hymns from the Olney books have been moved across.
The Olney Hymns are subdivided into three books: Book I, On Select Texts of Scripture; Book II, On occasional Subjects; and, Book III, On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life. The sub-divisions reflect key Evangelical beliefs. Book I holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of religious authority, and its hymns are written to provide the believer, through simple language, with a thorough understanding of its contents. Book II's 'Occasional Subjects' are those that bring understanding to the priorities of the Evangelical spiritual life. There is a section for instance on 'Providences', which serves to illustrate the Evangelical belief in God's ever-present controlling hand. Book III is written to express Newton's ideas of the stages of personal spiritual awakening and salvation.
The undoubted popularity of the hymns was not simply a matter of local taste, but can be seen within the wider, developing religious climate in England. The relative rise in popularity of the Evangelical movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was due to a number of reasons: the on-set of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent break up of, particularly, rural communities, was an unsettling influence on a parish like Olney; Methodism had seen a significant growth in popularity in the same period; and Evangelicalism was gradually finding its way into the established Church of England. However, Newton and Cowper's writing clearly fitted its purpose. Cowper's relatively few hymns demonstrate his poetic and creative abilities, whereas Newton's prose have been assessed by some as 'wooden'. Nevertheless, the principal purpose of the hymns was not a theological discussion or representation of the Bible, but were written for 'plain people'. In this respect Newton's use of simple and repetitive metres (rhythms) and simple rhyming structures ensured that his audience were better able to remember these hymns. The significant emphasis with 'I' within the hymns is an indication of Newton's view that the hymns are a product of his personal experience, a feature of his belief in personal repentance and Conversion, and his desire for a personal relationship with God.
The Olney Hymns online
The Victorian Web - The Olney Hymns by John Newton
The Cowper & Newton Museum
Amazing Grace: The story of John Newton
Poet's Corner - William Cowper
The Olney-Newton Link
Drew, Philip, ['Untitled: Review'], in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 78, No. 4 (1983), pp. 905- 906
'John Newton, William Cowper and others: the Olney Hymns in context', in Ian Donnachie and Carmen Lavin (eds.), From Enlightenment to Romanticism Anthology I, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), pp. 229 - 269
Hartley, Lodwick, 'The Worm and the Thorn: A Study of Cowper's "Olney Hymns"', in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1949). pp. 220 - 229
Newton, John, Olney hymns, in three books : I: On select texts of scripture; II. On occassional subjects; III. On the progress and changes of the spiritual life., (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1806)
Wolffe, John, 'Olney Hymns', in Religion, Exploration and Slavery, (Milton Keynes: The Open University, 2004), pp. 15 - 52