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John Newton’s Contribution to Anglophone Protestant Hymnody

May 28, 2024
By Bassam Michael Madany


John Calvin greatly influenced anglophone (English-speaking) Protestant worship by making the Psalms the unique source of praise. This practice became the tradition of the Church of Scotland, where the Psalter was sung a cappella. That was followed in the Presbyterian churches elsewhere. In the Church of England and the Anglican churches abroad, the Psalter was chanted somewhat in monotone, reminiscent of Gregorian chants.

Early in the nineteenth century, anglophone Protestants began using Hymns in their worship services. Most of the credit goes to John Newton. The following excerpts are based on the information provided by

“Newton was born to a devout… mother and a father who was a merchant ship captain. His mother died… when Newton was almost 7 years old, and by age 11, he was accompanying his father on sea voyages. At age 18, he was pressed into service with the Royal Navy… Newton later served as a sailor aboard several ships involved in [the slave trade].

“Although the Christian instruction from his mother stayed with him, Newton had largely abandoned the faith of his childhood until March 10, 1748, when he felt the first stirrings of a renewal of faith in God while steering a near-foundering ship through a fierce storm. …Newton continued working as a trader of enslaved persons and captained three voyages trafficking captive Africans to the West Indies… In 1754 poor health forced him to find a new occupation.

“Back on land, Newton… became an ordained Church of England clergyman in 1764. He accepted a post as a curate at a church in Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton took his duties seriously, preaching tirelessly to his large poor congregation. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled in Olney… Together they wrote the Olney Hymns (1779), which contains 68 hymns by Cowper and 280 by Newton.”

Newton authored “Amazing Grace,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and William Cowper composed “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

"As his faith matured, Newton’s remorse over his involvement in the slave trade surfaced and galvanized him. In 1785, he met with William Wilberforce and counseled him to remain in politics rather than pursue a religious life. Newton would remain a spiritual mentor for the prominent abolitionist for the next 20 years. In 1787, Newton helped Wilberforce found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, more commonly called the Anti-Slavery Society.”

As part of his ministry at Olney, John Newton, with the financial help of his wealthy friend and supporter, John Thornton of London, increased the number of services on Sundays and during the week. Some of these meetings were held near the Church, where he used some of the Olney Hymns for praise. (It is to be noted that in the official services on Sundays, which were held in the sanctuary, only the chanted Psalms could be used.)

As Newton’s popularity grew, he received several calls to service in prominent parts of England. He left the Church of St Peter and St Paul at Olney in 1780 to serve as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, where he officiated until his death on 21 December 1807. His 25 years of service at a prestigious Anglican church in London, where the Olney Hymns were sung, paved the way for the normalization of hymn-singing beyond the Church of England, impacting anglophone Protestant churches everywhere.

Furthermore, it spurred the composition of hymns by Anglican clergymen like Reginald Heber (21 April 1783 – 3 April 1826), who served as the first Bishop of Calcutta, India. He authored several hymns such as “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” “From Greenland Icy Mountains,” and “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning.”

Catherine Winkworth (13 September 1827-1 July 1878) was the daughter of Henry Winkworth, of Alderley, near Manchester, England. Her knowledge of German enabled her to translate several hymns into English. These are some of the Hymns she translated: “Praise to Lord, the Almighty,” “Now Thank We All Our God,” “Comfort Ye My People,” “From Heaven Above, I Come to You,” “Jesus Priceless Treasure,” “God that Madest Earth and Heaven,” and “Out of the Depth I Call to Thee.”

Another prolific hymnwriter was the English Congregational minister, Isaac Watts (17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748). He authored historic hymns, like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” and “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”.

Charles Wesley (18 December 1707-29 March 1788) wrote over 6,000 hymns during his lifetime, many of which are still sung in churches worldwide. Here are some of his familiar hymns: "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?" "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," and "Rejoice, the Lord is King."

While the list of anglophone hymn writers included not just John Newton, but four other writers, it was Newton who took the initiative of composing hymns that were instrumental in ending the exclusive Psalmody in the Churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion, as well as the Church of Scotland and the worldwide Presbyterian Churches.

The changes in the conduct of worship services that took place in anglophone Protestantism impacted the young churches of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. During the Church Year, they celebrate in their native languages with hymns translated from anglophone sources.

I can never forget hearing the Arabic version, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” sung during the Good Friday service, at the Evangelical Church in Beirut, Lebanon!

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