John Newton, born in 1725, was the primary author of the Olney Hymns. At the early age of 11 his father was inculcating into John the ways of a seafarer's life. Seven years later, John Newton was pressed into the service of the Royal Navy. Soon after, he deserted the Royal Navy and was traded onto a slave ship where he lived as close to a slave's life as was possible for a white male of his era. Despite coming to the understanding of a slave's dire situation, he still became the captain of his own slave ship. Ultimately, he came to fully realize the inhumanity of his actions and left his life as a slave ship captain to become ordained as a priest for the Church of England in 1764. That same year he published An Authentic Narrative which detailed his exploits commanding a slave vessel.
In the preface to his most famous work, The Olney Hymns, Newton
gave an indication as to
motivation for its inception:
A desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere Christians, though the principal, was not the only motive to this undertaking. It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship. (a)The friendship to which Newton refers is none other than his fellow collaborator for the project, William Cowper.
The Olney Hymns are divided into three books:
- On Select Passages of Scripture
- On Occasional Subjects
- On the Rise, Progress, Changes and Comforts of the Spiritual Life
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 judgement. (a2)
Book 1, On Select Passages of scripture, contains the largest amount of material pertinent to biblical typology. Depiction of Old Testament figures such as Abel hearken the prefiguring of the coming of Christ. In his hymn for Cain and Abel the hymn states,
Of Abels, whom the Cain's have kill'dOther individuals include Biblical Prophets such as Aaron serve as types to the anti-type of Christ:
Thus JESUS fell - but oh! his blood
Far better things than Abel's cries;
Obtains his murd'rers peace with GOD,
And gains them mansions in the skies (3)
The true Aaron -- "See Aaron, God's anointed priest,And yet, the types contained within the The Olney Hymns are not just intimately connected to the Bible. The biblical imagery resonates within such Victorian masterpieces as Tennyson's In Memoriam and throughout the religious poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Tennyson, Newton portrays specific images such as the image of the hand within several contexts. In one hymn, Newton conveys the nurturing qualities of the hand, "'Tis thus our gracious LORD provides,/Our comfort and our cares;/His own unerring hand provides,/ And gives us each our shares" (18). In yet another hymn, the hand serves as portent of a future danger, " Belshazzar...saw a hand upon the wall/(and trembled on his throne)/ Which wrote his sudden dreadfull fall/ In characters unknown..." (84)
...Thro' him the eyeof faith describes
A greater Priest than he:
Thus JESUS pleads above the skies,
For you, my friends, and me. (22)
Other significant image seen throughout In Memoriam and the works of Hopkins (specifically his The Wreck of the Deutschland) is that of the ship within a storm, "We may , like ships,/Be tempest tost/On perilous deeps/ But cannot be loft:/Tho' Satan enrages,/ The wind and the tide,/ The promise engages,/ The LORD wil provide" (40), Again on page 131, "We like the disciples, are toss'd/ By storms on a perilous deep;/ But cannot be possibly lost,/For JESUS has charge of the ship;/ Tho'billows and winds are enrag'd,/ And threaten to make us their sport;/ This pilot his word has engag'd/To bring us, in saftey, to port." The image of a ship first suffering the siege of a storm before reaching more tranquil waters serves echoes such types as Abel and Aaron.
Though Book 2 & 3 are not as laden with typological imagery as Book 1, this is not to say they are devoid of such instances. In addition to their more Christian didactic and dogmatic tone, with such hymns entitled, "Sacraments," "A Welcome to Christian Friends," "Cautions," and "To Sinners," there are other hymns permeated with biblical typology. The Hymn "The Rod of Moses" (page 182) continues along a particularly common typological vein:
When Moses wav'd his mystic rod
What wonders foll'd while he spoke?
Firm as a wall the waters stood
Or gush'd in rivers from the rock
Although not as skilled in the act of writing, despite the popularity of hymns such as "Amazing Grace," he cannot be ignored as a valuable source of typological imagery and references for the contemporaries of his time and for the scholars of today. He himself admits, in the preface to the Hymns,
If the Lord, whom I serve, has been pleased to favor me with that mediocrity of talent, which may qualify me for usefulness to the weak and the poor of his flock, without quite disguising persons of superior discernment, I have reason to be satisfied....I hope most of these hymns, being the fruit and expression of my own experiences, will coincide with the views of real Christians of all denominations.
Materials at Other Sites Related to John Newton and The Olney Hymns:
- An Illustrated account of John Newton's Life from the Christian Articles Archive
- Text of selected Olney Hymns
- The Cowper and Newton Museum Home Page
- The Unofficial Olney Page
Last modified 1998