Amazing Grace & The Olney Hymns

‘to my dear friends in the parish and neighbourhood of Olney, for whose use the hymns were originally composed;…’



Did you know?

  • ‘Amazing Grace’ was penned by the Rev John Newton during his time here in Olney.
  • Amazing Grace’ was originally titled ‘Faith’s Review and Expectations’ .
  • It was published by John in 1779 as hymn number XLI in a hymn book titled ‘The Olney Hymns’.
  • All 348 hymns in the hymn book were written by William Cowper or John Newton.


When was ‘Amazing Grace’ written?

It is highly likely that ‘Faith’s Review and Expectation’ (Amazing Grace’) was written by John in the weeks leading up to his New Year’s Day service on 1st January 1773.

The evidence for this comes from research carried out by Marylynn Rouse of the John Newton Project.  She has connected information from John Newton’s sermon notebook in Lambeth Palace Library, the first edition of the ‘Olney Hymns’ as well as John’s diary which includes entries for January 1773 held by Princeton University Library.

John was at home in Olney during this time so the hymn was probably written in the top floor attic study of his Vicarage.

You can link to The John Newton Project here.  (sermon notebook) (transcript of diary)


What is the hymn about?

John had decided to base his sermon on 1 Chronicles 17, an ideal subject for New Year’s Day .  As with his hymns, John often used examples from his own life to help his congregation of lacemakers, farm workers, trades people, young people etc understand his message. As David is encouraged to do in this passage, John talked about looking back at life and considering who you are now,  as well as looking forward to what the future might hold.

‘Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come’



Jonathan Aiken in his book ‘Disgrace to Amazing Grace’ also suggests that John might have been looking to support his friend William Cowper who was again slipping into deep depression.

‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.’


Was Amazing Grace sung in church services when John was Curate in Olney?

There is much debate about this as the singing of hymns was not officially approved in the Church of England until 1820.  However, the singing of hymns among Anglican evangelicals had been growing throughout the early 18th century influenced by the Moravian, Lutheran, Baptist, Congregational and Independent churches.  When we also factor in:

  • In Liverpool John had formed close friendships with the two leading evangelists of the day — George Whitefield and John Wesley (founders of the Methodist ministry) and had attended Moravian, Baptist and Methodist services where congregational hymns were sung.
  • John had been supported in gaining his ordination by William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth.  Lord Dartmouth himself was  a close friend of the Countess of Huntingdon who was instrumental in supporting the Wesleys & Whitefield.  She purchased and built chapels and independent churches in which hymns were sung within the church service.
  • John was friends with the Rev Martin Madan, Chaplain to the London Lock Hospital with Dr Thomas Haweis as Assistant Chaplain.  He was closely connected with the Calvinistic Methodist movement supported by the Countess of Huntingdon of which Lord Dartmouth was also a key figure.
    John’s 1767 Diary: Weds 18th February ‘Dined at Mr Madan’s with Lord and Lady Dartmouth etc’
    Friday 20th February ‘Evening preached at the Lock from Hebrews 12:14’    Martin published his own book,  a collection of Psalms and Hymns extracted from various Authors in 1760 for the Lock Hospital.

AND William also had experience of hymn singing before coming to live in Olney.  In this letter to his cousin Mrs Cowper on the 20th October 1766 he describes how he spent his time whilst living as a boarder in the household of the Rev Morely & Mrs Mary Unwin in Huntingdon.  The Martin mentioned in the letter is the same Mr Madan mentioned by John and is the cousin of William Cowper…

We believe these letters from John indicate that he was including the singing of hymns within his church services

letter  Cowper & Newton Museum

.Letter from Historical Manuscripts Commission XV Report, Appendix, Part 1, The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, iii (1896 )


To what tune was Amazing Grace sung?

We don’t know for sure but Marylynn Rouse of The John Newton Project has also carried out research into possible tunes of the day.  This link Amazing Grace: The Tune  takes you to her research where you can also listen to the English Chamber Choir singing ‘Amazing Grace’ to some of these tunes.


When did John & William start writing the Olney Hymns?

There is debate as to how soon after William came to live in Olney in 1767 that the idea of publishing a collection of hymns was taken. John was already singing hymns with his congregation in group meetings at the Rectory, Lord Dartmouth’s unoccupied Great House or in the Church, and as we have shown above, within some of his services.

Back on the 1st January 1765 John had described to his patron Lord Dartmouth his plans for developing his groups:

‘I propose to establish three meetings … One for the children, another for the young and enquiring persons, and a third to be a meeting with the more experienced and judicious for prayer and conference.’

The meetings become so popular that there was not enough room in the Vicarage to hold all those who wanted to attend.  In 1768 John was writing to Lord Dartmouth to say:

 ‘… we are so crowded that when the weather grows warmer we shall not be able to meet there without being greatly incommoded.’

John then went on to propose making use of ‘the large room in the great house on the right hand side; ..’  One of the rooms was already used to hold Sunday meetings, and for catechism with the children.

These meetings would often be a combination of prayer, engagement with the Bible and hymn singing (the children were often taught them by rote)

  • We know that William had written some ‘verses’ in December 1767 which  became hymn No. 3 in the ‘Olney Hymns

‘Oh for a closer Walk with God
A calm & heav’nly Frame,
A Light to shine upon the Road
That leads me to the Lamb!’

  • ln November 1770 John is writing to Lord Dartmouth: ‘We have now and then a new hymn in Olney: I am willing to send your Lordship a specimen, Mr Cowper’s I shall mark with W.C.’
  • And the Preface to the hymn book also clearly indicates that it was before William’s next major depression at the beginning of 1773.


What do we know about the publication of the Olney Hymns?

  • Prior to the publication of the hymn book, a few of the hymns had been published previously as early as 1769 in magazines such as the ‘Gospel Magazine’. John notes in his preface that other people had been putting their names to William & John’s work.


  • William wrote 67 hymns before severe depression stopped him and John wrote the remaining 281.
  • John transcribed all the hymns into 2 notebooks before going to print. 1 book is missing but the other is owned by the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  • Marylynn Rouse has connected the information in this notebook with John’s diary to work out the date and context of many of the hymns.    Explore here


How famous is ‘Amazing Grace’?

.The Illustrated Timeline on the American Library of Congress website gives a fascinating overview of how the 18th century English hymn became one of the best known hymns in America.  Here you will be able to see and hear how the hymn evolved with information, images and sound recordings from the online catalog of the Chasanoff/Elozua Amazing Grace Collection which includes more than 3,000 published recorded performances of the hymn.

Amazing Grace Hymn



Faith’s review and expectation

Chap. xvii.  16,17.

Amazing grace!  (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the vail,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be for ever mine.

Original words from the 1st edition of the Olney Hymns, 1779, Book 1, Hymn 41


John Newton and Amazing Grace Today

We in Olney, through the Olney Newton Link, continue to support villagers in Sierra Leone whose ancestors suffered so.  We also recognise that the slave trade continues today, albeit in most cases under cover of criminal activities.
Using Amazing Grace as a theme and having no control over content, we offer links below to other websites you may find interesting and inspiring.

The John Newton ProjectOh, it was mercy indeed to save a wretch like me!
John Newton wrote these words in his journal on 21 March 1796 (at the age of 70), 48 years after his conversion.
Amazing Grace being used for a special family. We feel sure John Newton would have approved,This shows how a very special village comes together to help one of their own in what must be a unique project with over half the local population singing 'Amazing Grace' to raise money for Berni Cliffe's cancer treatment. - (quotation from
The Olney Newton LinkThe Olney Newton Link's aim is to advance education and relieve poverty in Newton, Sierra Leone by the provision of charitable assistance.
Amazing Grace and its connection with Lough SwillyIreland's beautiful Lough Swilly was the setting for a dramatic story which changed the life of a foul mouthed slave trader. John Newton went on to pen one of the most famous and well-loved songs of all time - "Amazing Grace" and to mentor William Wilberforce in his long battle to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Amazing Grace Experience
St. Kitts
Discover more about the John Newton's story the song "Amazing Grace" and the beautiful island of St Kitts. Be inspired to continue Newton's fight by discovering more about slavery in today's world.
Pete Seger and 'Amazing Grace' - by John YatchisinI corresponded with Pete on a number of occasions, but I want to share a letter that I wrote to Pete about Olney and John Newton, and his response. ..... it will be on display at the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, as part of their selection of items relating to John Newton and the song “Amazing Grace”:
ws/video/2015/jun/26/obama-sings-amazing-grace-clementa-pinckney-eulogy-video" target="_blank">Obama sings Amazing GraceObama sings Amazing Grace during eulogy for Charleston pastor
British Abolitionistswesite of Brycchan Carey , academic and author specialising in the history and culture of slavery and abolition in the British Empire.
The Abolition Project websiteThe Transatlantic Slave Trade and Thomas Clarkson and his fellow abolitionists who fought for emancipation of enslaved Africans in the British colonies.

Commemorative bench in the museum garden to remember Pete and Toshi Seeger

Pete encouraged 18,000 people to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ at his 90th birthday party in Madison Square Garden, New York. He loved this hymn.

(Thank you to John Yatchisin for this inspiring donation).
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