John Newton (1725-1807)
John Newton lived in Olney for 16 years as curate-in-charge of the parish church, St Peter & St Paul.
He lived in the vicarage opposite the church.
His writings became known worldwide while he was in Olney.
Newton was a frequent visitor at Orchard Side to see his friend William Cowper.
“I believe … we were not seven hours without being together.”
Newton published several books while at Olney, the most famous perhaps being a joint-production with Cowper – The Olney Hymns – in 1779.
Many of their hymns are still sung today around the world:
Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion city of our God (N)
God moves in a mysterious way (C)
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (N)
O for a closer walk with God (C)
As Newton wrote in the Preface:
“I more particularly dedicate to my dear friends in the parish and neighbourhood of Olney, for whose use the hymns were originally composed; as a testimony of the sincere love I bear them…”
Today one of the hymns Newton wrote in Olney, Amazing Grace, holds world records! The Library of Congress
has more than 3,000 different recordings of Amazing Grace. You can read more about the origins and history of the hymn Amazing Grace here on the John Newton Project website and here on our website.
Harvard University owns John’s manuscript (Vol 2) into which he transcribed the hymns to go off to be printed. This can be viewed online here. Unfortunately, Volume 1 is missing …
Things to see in the Museum which belonged to Newton include:
John Newton began his career as a seafarer and worked aboard slave trading ships, before becoming a famous London preacher and spiritual mentor to William Wilberforce, the abolitionist.
It was when returning to England aboard the ship Greyhound in 1748, John Newton awoke to find themselves caught in a violent storm and about to sink. He prayed for God’s mercy, the storm died down and after four more weeks at sea the Greyhound finally made it to port in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This experience marked the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. Newton continued to work in the slave trade but his actions began to be shaped by his faith.
In 1755, John took the job of Tide Surveyor at the Port of Liverpool. This coincided with a the Seven Year War which reduced maritime traffic, giving him time to meet with preachers and evangelists such as George Whitefield and John Wesley. (read more about this time of his life here) By 1757 Newton had started to prepare for the ministry himself and after seven years was ordained into the Church of England. He became curate of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney, a position he held for nearly 16 years.
In 1780 Newton moved to the City of London as rector of St Mary Woolnoth Church, where he wholeheartedly supported the work of the Committee for the Abolition of Slavery, formed in 1787. (Minutes of first meeting of the Committee for Abolition of Slavery).
Other committee minutes record how they purchased the remains of the 1st print run of Newton’s Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade published in January 1788, paid for 3,000 more to be printed and sent a copy to each member of both Houses of parliament. However, it was back in December 1785 that William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, had visited John for guidance and advice. They had first met in Olney when as an 11 year old boy William had accompanied his Uncle and Aunt. Through his meetings with John, William made the decision not to enter the ministry himself, but to remain an MP and become the voice of the abolitionist movement in parliament.
John Newton died in 1807, a few months after the Act abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire had been passed.
John Newton’s writings were popular and widely read. Today he is perhaps best known as the author of the world-famous hymn, Amazing Grace, which was one of the Olney Hymns; but many of his letters were published in his lifetime and are still proving inspirational reading today. ‘His Works’, which include hymns, letters, sermons and articles, have been reprinted in modern typeface by Banner of Truth.