In 1779, a collection of 348 poems called the Olney Hymns was published. These hymns were not set to music like the ones we are familiar with today. Rather, they were a collection of verses that could be sung or chanted to nearly any tune, even that of a pub song. They were written for the people of Olney, a small town in Buckinghamshire, England.
Written so that anyone, even the poor and uneducated, could sing the praises of God.
The verses were written by two men — John Newton and William Cowper. The two men had lived very different lives, but they somehow found themselves working at a church in Olney, scribbling verses about the God who continued to change their lives. And, as is often the case, God had used the words they wrote to change the lives of countless others.
William Cowper grew up the son of a rector. He was well educated and developed a talent and love for writing in verse. But life was not always kind to the young poet. While studying a clerkship in the House of Lords, Cowper experienced an extreme bout of depression, the first of many he would experience throughout his life.
After attempting to commit suicide three times, he was sent to an asylum. There, he was re-introduced to the Gospel.
Leaving the asylum, Cowper settled in Olney where he tended gardens and wrote poems in a little shed that he called his “sulking house.”
Unlike Cowper, Newton was the son of a shipmaster and was working on a ship by the time he was eleven years old. At the age of 18, he was pressed into service in the Royal Navy. A failed attempt at desertion resulted in a brutal punishment and Newton was stripped of his rankings. He considered suicide, thinking he’d hit rock bottom.
But then he was transferred to work on a slave ship.
During the next several years, he went from slave trader to slave and back again. Finally, caught in the middle of a storm at sea, Newton begged God for help and placed his life in God’s hands. His conversion was long and drawn out. Newton himself would later say that he did not consider himself to be a believer in the full sense of the word until many years later — when Newton repented for his part in the slave trade and became an abolitionist.
But in 1754, Newton relinquished his life at sea and began studying the God who saved him during the storm so long ago. Ten years later, he was appointed as a curate in the town of Olney, where he met Cowper.
The two were drawn to hymn writing. For Newton, it provided a way to reflect on the Lord’s hand in his life and his growing remorse over his time as a slaver. It also allowed him to connect with his parishioners, regardless of their backgrounds. For Cowper, the hymns helped him deal with a depression that was never too far away. The hymns were words of truth, meant to ground him when he could not trust his own mind. And the Olney Hymns did not stay in Olney. In fact, you probably have heard several of them.
The most famous, written by Newton, is Amazing Grace.
Those words, which have impacted countless people, were written by a former slaver who once gave no mind to the ways of God. Many of the other hymns, such as There is a Fountain Filled with Blood, were written by a man who struggled with depression until the day he died.
The Olney Hymns, beautiful and moving, are made even more so when you consider them men who wrote them. They are a powerful reminder of the grace of God — that nothing we do or have done can disqualify us from the work of God. The words these men wrote traveled far beyond Olney and sunk deep into the hearts of many — a true model of redemption and the powerful grace of God.
Newton’s epitaph, written by Newton himself before his death says this:
“Once an infidel and libertine, A servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the gospel which he had long labored to destroy.”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.
Emily Towns, Staff Writer, Paper Giants