This is part (2) on a series looking at John Newtons contributions to modern hymnody. Part (1) here.
If you have a few moments this week read John Newton’s preface to his Olney hymns. He wrote it in 1779 but as far as I can tell its as good advice today as ever – it’s a virtual treatise on how to approach songwriting for the church. John Newton’s instruction is certainly one that we should read and study carefully. His Olney hymns have been in constant publication since 1779, and his classics (Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, et al) are today sung by every denomination in the church world-wide.
The Seven Rules of Songwriting for the Church
By John Newton
1. Write a lot
John Newton wrote almost a hymn a week during the period when he labored hardest on the Olney Hymn collection.
2. Write in a lot of different ways
If you read through the Olney Hymns this speaks for itself. Write from scripture, from the church year, write on themes and special occasions, write for the sacraments, and write from your own experience and that of others under your care. Write for adults and write for children, write long hymns and short hymns and write in different meters. Almost more so than his hymn’s, Newton was famous for his correspondence. He can read some of his collected letters in ‘Cardiphonia.’
3. Write with others
Newton was one of the first hymn writers that we are aware of who actively engaged in co-writing and encouraging other writers to pursue their craft! He invited William Cowper, who was in the midst of a troubling depression, to move to Olney to write with him. Together they published the Olney Hymns, which contains 384 hymns. Today about 6 of those hymns are still widely used.
4. Write with Gospel Charity
John Newton wrote in such a way that his hymns were almost universally used and admired…as sources for worship music, as a place to find devotional material, etc. He was admired by Methodists, Anglican’s, and Catholics alike. Even today he is found in almost every denominations major hymnal. That is a tremendous legacy of his Gospel charity – his desire that his hymns would ‘produce and maintain a gospel conversation’ wherever they went.
5. Write to teach the faith, and comfort believers.
Newton wrote that one of the original designs of his hymn-writing was to promote the faith and comfort of sincere Christians.
6. Write with simplicity, clarity, and ease.
Newton suggests that when writing for public worship we should write with perspicuity, simplicity, and ease, using the coloring of poetry – if admitted at all – to be indulged very sparingly and with great judgment. He also admits that it is difficult to write verse that will please and suit the needs of both the poor and the cultured at the same time.
7. Write from a life soaked in the Gospel.
We write from what we know, what we have lived, and what we hope to live! John Newton bore a lifetime of his personal narrative and his love for God’s story into his songs and hymns. Trusting that each hymn would be about the business of promoting growth and establishment in the grace of our God and Savior!