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“Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.” George Eliot
Many can sing from memory the familiar words found in the popular hymn, Amazing Grace. But fewer know that John Newton, writer of this well-known classic, is actually better known in musical circles for today’s composition that was first entitled Zion, or the City of God. Published in 1779 in a collection of revival songs called The Olney Hymns, Newton’s text about Zion, the City of our God, originally had five stanzas of eight lines each. Today, only three or four verses are generally published in hymnals, and it is most commonly combined with Franz Joseph Haydn’s well-known tune Austria, which is also the melody used for the national anthem of Germany.
While many know the words to Amazing Grace, and some of you may recall a line or two from today’s classic, Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken, fewer know the life story of John Newton, a man who considered himself to be a great sinner saved only by the grace found in the blood of Jesus. Born in 1725, Newton was taught by his devout mother to walk closely with God, but disaster hit at age seven when Newton’s mother suddenly died. His father, a Mediterranean ship-captain, quickly remarried and sent John off to a boarding school where, in Newton’s words, “the imprudent severity of the master almost broke my spirit, and relish for books.” By age eleven, Newton joined his father on one of his trade ships, which led him down a pathway in life that he would later regret. One nineteenth-century biographer (H. Leigh Bennett) conveyed Newton’s conversion story this way:
(Newton) grew into an abandoned and godless sailor. The religious fits of his boyhood changed into settled infidelity…Disappointing repeatedly the plans of his father, he was flogged as a deserter from the navy, and for fifteen months lived, half-starved and ill-treated, in abject degradation under a slave-dealer in Africa. The one restraining influence of his life was his faithful love for his future wife, Mary Catlett, formed when he was seventeen, and she only in her fourteenth year. A chance reading of Thomas à Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) sowed the seed of his conversion; which quickened under the awful contemplations of a night spent in steering a water-logged vessel in the face of apparent death (1748). He was then twenty-three. The six following years, during which he commanded a slave ship, matured his Christian belief. Nine years more, spent chiefly at Liverpool, in (relationship) with (George) Whitefield, (John) Wesley, and Nonconformists, in the study of Hebrew and Greek, in exercises of devotion and occasional preaching among the Dissenters, elapsed before his ordination to the curacy of Olney, Bucks (1764).
It was in Olney (1764-1779), as he was serving as a curate to the Vicar, when John Newton began to write hymns. Unhappy with the repetitive lyrics found in the Psalter, Newton decided to enlist his next-door neighbor, William Cowper, to join him in writing new songs that would express the “heartfelt religion” they were experiencing during this season of spiritual renewal. The result was The Olney Hymns, a book of 359 revival tunes, which included 67 songs written by Cowper (who struggled with bouts of depression that kept him from composing more), and 281 written by Newton! It was this hymnbook, written with “a desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere Christians” (from Newton’s Preface) that brought us classics like today’s hymn, Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken, Cowper’s O, For A Closer Walk With God, and, of course, the hymn we will discuss at the end of this blog series, Amazing Grace.
So as we close today, here are the original five verses from what many believe to be John Newton’s greatest hymn:
Glorious things of Thee are spoken,
Zion, City of our God.
God, whose word cannot be broken,
Formed Thee for His own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake Thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all Thy foes.
See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love,
Well supply Thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river,
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age.
Round each habitation hovering,
See the cloud and fire appear,
For a glory and a covering,
Showing that the Lord is near.
Thus deriving from their banner,
Light by night and shade by day,
Safe they feed upon the manna,
Which God gives them when on their way.
Bless’d inhabitants of Zion,
Wash’d in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God.
‘Tis His love His people raises,
Over self to reign as kings,
And as priests, His solemn praises,
Each for a thank-off’ring brings.
Savior, since of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name.
Fading are the world’s best pleasures,
All its’ boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasures,
None but Zion’s children know.
My prayer: Father God, John Newton’s lyrics remind us that we are “through grace” welcomed sojourners into Your Holy City, Zion. May I, Jesus, “glory in Your name” and keep my focus on the “solid joys and lasting treasures” found in You, and You alone. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: New songs such as Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken, Amazing Grace, and others were written from a strong desire to speak of the renewal going on in the hearts of their composers. What new songs are in the renewed hearts of our generation? Am I asking God for such precious gifts in our day?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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