The Sermon Songs of John Newton

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

*Oh, For a Closer Walk with GodGenesis 5:24

Amazing Grace (How Sweet the Sound) – 1st Chronicles 17:16-17

How Sweet the Name of Jesus SoundsSong of Solomon 1:3

Glorious Things of Thee are SpokenIsaiah 33:20-21

Pensive, Doubting, Fearful, HeartIsaiah 54:5,11 | Red Mountain Arr.

*There is a Fountain Filled with Blood Zechariah 13:1


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


Sacramental Hymns

On Prayer

On the Scripture


Fast-Day Hymns

Funeral Hymns



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.
III. Conflict
IV. Comfort
V. Dedication and Surrender
VI. Cautions
VII. Praise
VIII. Short Hymns:
Before Sermon
After Sermon
Gloria Patri


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.

3 thoughts on “The Sermon Songs of John Newton

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  1. Awesome topic! I’m so glad you posted this. I am so encouraged by John Newton. Last month I posted a kind of exposition of a sentence found in the Preface to the Olney Hymns.

    It has to do with Newton’s view of his own God-given abilities to write hymns and how this view should be imitated by those who lead worship. Here’s the link. I hope you and your readers find it as interesting and helpful as your post:

    Looking forward to part 2

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