The Houghton Library at Harvard University holds a vast collection of important historical papers, letters and manuscripts. There are works there from Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Keats, Louisa May Alcott and many other notable authors and poets. Deep within that library is a fragile old volume, worn, faded and crumbling. It is a handwritten manuscript labeled simply “Vol. 2.” Yet that otherwise unremarkable volume has great historical significance because it contains half of the portion of hymns that John Newton contributed to the final published version of Olney Hymns. It is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are tracing the history of Christianity, for Olney Hymns directs us to the rise of the hymn as a distinctive component of Christian worship.
As Protestantism was established and grew, its leaders immediately saw that songs could serve an important role in teaching and popularizing sound doctrine. The history of English hymnody began in 1707 when Isaac Watts published his first book of hymns, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. From a young age Watts had been incensed that most of the English churches sang only Old Testament Psalms. Watts believed that Christians needed to also sing songs that were explicit about the cross and about the Savior who has now been made manifest in Jesus Christ. He set out to write this kind of hymn. At first he based his hymns on the Psalms, though with the references to Jesus explicitly drawn out. Later he would broaden his hymn-writing to subjects beyond the Psalms. By the end of his life, Watts had penned some 750 hymns, many of which are widely sung even today (e.g. “Joy to the World,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”).
Of the tens of thousands of hymn-writers who emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Charles Wesley was the most prolific. Over the course of his life and ministry Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns, among which are the well-known “And Can It Be?,” O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
Yet the greatest and most widely-known English hymn was penned not by Watts or Wesley, but by John Newton. Newton was born in Wapping, London, in 1725, and from a young age was utterly rebellious against both God and man. He was pressed into service with the Royal Navy and later transferred to a slave ship where he was involved in transporting slaves from Africa to the New World. In 1748 he experienced a radical and unexpected conversion and in 1764 was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, serving in Olney, Buckinghamshire. It was here that he met William Cowper, a troubled poet who would become a dear friend; together the two of them would pen a collection of hymns they would title Olney Hymns.