This is part (1) of a two-part series looking at John Newton’s approach to hymn writing. In part (2) we will look at the various ways that John Newton approached hymn writing and his influence on songwriters to the current day.
Many of our favorite hymns from John Newton are found in Book 1 of his and Cowper’s “Olney Hymns.” Book 1 focus’s on hymns that are connected to particular passages of scripture, many of them written by Newton to support his preaching on those texts. He was interested that the people would have hymns to sing ‘designed for public worship, and for the use of plain people.” Olney hymns on CCEL
It is a wonderful exercise to look at the biblical texts that some of these hymns are connected with…because it is often a very surprising partnership and speaks to the breadth and gospel spirit of Newton’s and Cowper’s writing. All in all the Olney hymns include 23 books of the Old Testament and 12 books in the New Testament…quite a feat and challenge to those of us who seek to present the whole counsel of God in worship to our people. (I will include links to the ESV – although John Newton’s bible would have been the authorized KJV). *Cowper
Book 1. On Select Passages of Scripture
songwriting note: A great songwriting exercise would be to write music to John Newton’s hymns on the letters to the churches in Revelation.
Book II. On Occasional Subjects
New-Year, before sermons
New-Year, after sermons
The Close of the Year
On the Scripture
songwriting note: If you are writing regularly for your congregation then these topics should find their way into your songs. Spend some time picking text from these different topics to write music to as you explore what it means to support the church year, the sacraments, and other special services with song.
Book III. On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life
I. Solemn Addresses to Sinners
II. Seeking, Pleading, and Hoping.
V. Dedication and Surrender
VIII. Short Hymns:
songwriting note: Newton’s pastoral sensitivity to his congregation in Olney meant that he spent a lot of time writing hymns on the troubles of the Christian life, both to instruct and encourage his congregation. We could do with more of these in our repertoire. Tim Keller has said recently that we need a more robust theology of suffering. Our songs choices inform and form our people’s experience, emotions, and responses to suffering and sorrow. If our worship music doesn’t provide a place to work out our sorrows (see song on Psalm 130) then people will work them out elsewhere. Interesting recent article on depression here.