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.
The final version of Olney Hymns incorporated 348 hymns with 66 or 67 attributed to Cowper and the remainder to Newton. These hymns were meant to reflect and teach the most important Protestant beliefs. The men wrote these hymns for the people of their working-class congregation and Newton explained in his introduction to the collection that “They should be Hymns, not Odes, if designed for public worship, and for the use of plain people.” He believed “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 judgement” while stating that his goal in writing them was to promote “the faith and comfort of sincere Christians.”
“Amazing Grace” is not only the best-known song in the collection, but one of the best-known songs ever written. It speaks simply and directly of man’s great need for salvation and of God’s sovereign saving grace. In that way it is universally biographical, a song any Christian can sing with worshipful sincerity. Other notable hymns in the collection include “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.”
Olney Hymns was published at a time when singing hymns was on the rise in public worship gatherings. This was representative of the growing evangelical movement in England and America, where the message of a traditionally high church was being brought to people in the mines, fields, and factories. Rather than seeking the status of art, the hymns were meant to be devotional in spirit and eminently practical, useful to the uneducated commoner. The songs held high the chief doctrines of the gospel: the sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, the perfect atonement of Christ, and personal faith in him. They embodied the life and experience of their chief author: a slave trader turned churchman, who did not possess or feign high artistic ability but spoke plainly (though with great power!) about God and his salvation.
The Houghton Library holds a hand-written manuscript of volume 2 of the Olney Hymns, containing hymns 179 – 335. This otherwise unremarkable volume reminds us that God saves and uses the most unlikely sinners, and that he gifts people in unexpected ways. It reminds us that God does not call the high and mighty of the world, but the poor and lowly. It calls us to thank God for the great gift of music, which allows us to raise our voices, our hearts, our hands and our minds together, in supplication, confession, praise and adoration.
More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito