OHP: Preface

Olney Hymn ProjectToday I finally start a new series called the ‘Olney Hymn Project’ (OHP). I have already written a few short blogs on it herehere and here.

My hope is that you are blessed by some of these great old hymns.

Olney Hymns was complied by John Newton and contains both his and William Cowpers hymns. It was published in 1779 and was  originally intended for use in Newtons Olney Parish.

You can search Olney hymns online here.

You can download the PDF for free here.

In this first installment I will look at the Preface written by Newton and point out why this hymn book was written and the principles behind it.

1. This is a hymn book of friendship

Newton starts by explaining that the project was originally a partnership between him and Cowper. They were very close friends, as Newton was Cowpers minister and counselor. Cowper was a depressive and tried to take his life on a number of occasions (you can read about him in John Pipers excellent work here). However, Cowper fell into deep depression and was never able to finish the project, hence Newton waited many years before finishing it with a heavy heart. He writes:

‘It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship’.


2. This is a hymn book for public worship

Newton was very conscience that he was writing for a public setting. They were intended for Sunday and mid week meetings, and this cover a wide variety of Bible passages (it is written in three parts, the first of which is the Bible), and also covers practical Christian living.

What is interesting is the way in which Newton was conscious of how this setting should effect his writing. He explains about hymns for public worship:

‘They should be Hymns, not Odes, if designed for public worship, and for the use of plain people. Perspicuity, simplicity and ease, should be chiefly attended to; and the imagery and coloring of poetry, if admitted at all, should be indulged very sparingly and with great judgment. The late Dr. Watts, many of whose hymns are admirable patterns in this species of writing, might, as a poet, have a right to say, That it cost him some labor to restrain his fire, and to accommodate himself to the capacities of common readers.’


3. This is a hymn book of experiential Christianity

Although Newton and Cowper cover many Bible passages, great doctrines, and had in mind the need to teach the people, it is still a reflection of experience. These doctrines are personal experiences. Newton explains:

being the fruit and expression of my own experience’.

You only have to think of the books most famous hymn to see this at work:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.


4. This is a hymn book of Calvinistic theology

Newton was an unashamed Calvinist, and Cowper’s hymns are a model of Calvinistic experiential faith. Remembering the fact of Cowper’s depression and suicidal feelings, you read his hymns with a sense of amazement:

God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Judge not the LORD by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence,

He hides a smiling face.

There we see and feel the joy that is true Biblical Calvinism. Indeed, Newton calls them the ‘doctrines of grace’ in the Preface and says this:

‘…the doctrines of grace are essential to my peace, I could not live comfortably a day or an hour without them. I likewise believe, yea, so far as my poor attainments warrant me to speak, I know them to be friendly to holiness, and to have a direct influence in producing and maintaining a gospel conversation, and therefore I must not be ashamed of them.’


5. This is a hymn book full of pastoral care

Newton is famous for many things, but one of the most important things about him must be his pastoral care. Indeed, his book ‘Newtons letters’ is a masterclass in pastoral care.  Amazingly he was instrumental in the conversion of a neighboring Curate called Thomas Scott (which he describes in his book ‘The force of Truth’).

This is shown at the end of his Preface in a very loving way:

‘The hour is approaching, and at my time of life cannot be very distant, when my heart, my pen, and my tongue, will no longer be able to move in their service. But I trust, while my heart continues to beat, it will feel a warm desire for the prosperity of their souls; and while my hand can write, and my tongue speak, it will be the business and the pleasure of my life, to aim at promoting their growth and establishment in the grace of our God and Savior. To this precious grace I commend them, and earnestly entreat them, and all who love his name, to strive mightily with their prayers to God for me, that I may be preserved faithful to the end, and enabled at last to finish my course with joy.

Olney, Bucks,

Feb. 15, 1779′


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6 thoughts on “OHP: Preface

  1. Hi Jonathan, glad to see the interest in eighteenth century Christianity! The Olney posts sound really interesting. Have you see the best new biography of John Newton? Its D. Bruce Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000). Can’t recommend it highly enough!!

  2. Thanks JT for the tip -off. Have started reading through, I love the way Newton describes the doctrines of grace “essential to my peace”…

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