Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Amazing Grace, according to Jonathan Aitken, is "the most sung, most recorded and most loved hymn in the world." This hymn, titled 'Faith's Review and Expectation', was prepared by John Newton for a New Year's sermon on January 1, 1773. Newton was preaching at a church in Olney, England. His friend William Cowper had moved to Olney in 1767, and together they conceived an idea to collaborate on a hymn book. According to Steve Turner, "the day Newton presented the hymn for the first time was also the day Cowper attended the church for the last time."

William Cowper was struggling with depression. Perhaps John Newton hoped these lines of grace and assurance would help his friend. Rather, Cowper sank into a suicidal melancholy which lasted several months. He recovered to a large degree. But afterward, he no longer attended the church at Olney. He never wrote another hymn. He did not loose his faith in God, but evidently lost all in himself.

For many months after Jan. 1, 1773, Newton didn't write hymns either. But he would later crank up his production and finish
Olney Hymns on his own. Olney Hymns was a success, going through over 40 editions and half a million copies. Despite the popularity of Olney Hymns, No. 41, 'Faith's Review and Expectation', passed on relatively unnoticed in its homeland. It was reprinted in the Select Collection of Hymns by the Countess of Huntingdon in 1780. It appeared in not one single hymnal published by the Church of England before 1900. In fact, in 1892 hymnologist John Julian wrote, "In Great Britain it is unknown to modern collections, but in America its use is extensive. It is far from being a good example of Newton's work." It first appeared in America in 1789 in a hymnal of the Dutch Reformed Church.

It was connected with various tunes until William Walker paired it with the tune New Britain in his 1835
Southern Harmony. There are various debates and theories about the origins of this tune. Regardless of the mysteries surrounding its origin, or what possessed William Walker to wed the hymn and tune, most would agree with Jonathan Aitken that "it was a marriage made in heaven."

Perhaps Newton hoped the hymn would comfort and reassure his friend William Cowper. He could not know that what passed unsuccessfully in 1773 would touch the hearts of countless millions in ages to come.

Faith's review and expectation. 1 Chron 17:16-17

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

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The LORD has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But GOD, who called me here below,
Will be for ever mine.

* William Cowper is the author of the hymn that appeared on yesterday's blog.
** Much of the historical information is based on facts presented in John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken. It's a very good read. I highly recommend it.
*** Also referenced: Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song, New York, NY: Ecco, 2002. A Dictionary of Hymnology: Origin and history of Christian hymns and hymnwriters of all ages and nations, John Julian, 1892. According to The Cowper and Newton [Museum] Bulletin, Vol 2 No 1, 67 of the Olney hymns were written by Cowper, and 281 written by Newton -- the disparity reflecting Cowper's abstinence from hymn writing after 1773.


Anonymous said...

With your consent, I will borrow this column for publication in the Sacred Harp Colorado newsletter. It will run without the lyric and first foot note, but with attribution to you and will include the second foot note. Most likely it will run in the March edition.
You are doing good work here.


R. L. Vaughn said...

Pete, you are welcome to use this if it is of any benefit to you. I made a couple of corrections to typographical errors in the body of the post. If you find any others, feel free to correct them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Robert