John Newton was a pastor’s pastor.
He preached. He mentored. He wrote.
For sixteen years (1764-1780), Newton served as the curate of Olney parish. Olney (pronounced “all-knee.” ) was a rural area of only 2000 people. The congregation was poor and largely uneducated, most making their living as laborers in the lace industry.
William Cowper – a young man plagued with frequent bouts of depression – moved to Olney in 1767. Once a candidate for a finance career in London (a position arranged through the influence of a domineering and loveless father) Cowper’s life was marked with loneliness and pain. Despite his reclusive and emotionally devastating story, Cowper’s years in Olney were the happiest and most stable of his otherwise tragic life.
Newton (who, like Cowper lost his mother when he was 6 years old) seemed to love Cowper out of a bottomless empathy and compassion. They would walk together, write frequently, and share their thoughts about their church. Throughout their friendship, Newton was a trusted confidant, loving friend, and an incredible pastor.
Cowper wrote of Newton: “A sincerer or more affectionate friend, no man ever had.”
Picking up on Cowper’s poetic gift, Newton asked his young friend to consider the idea of collaborating on a hymnal together. The hymns were to be used especially in their small church.
The result: Olney Hymns. 348 hymns (incidentally, with no musical arrangement) including Amazing Grace, and There is a Fountain. Newton wrote over 200. Cowper wrote 68.
Here’s the point: for a church to truly create, it must be alive. Put another way: When God is moving in the life of a local church, that church will then be free to express itself in a tangible way.
For worship leaders: In the preface of the hymnal, Newton wrote: “they should be hymns – not odes, if designed for public worship, and for plain people.” That’s pretty good criteria. If you’re asking your church to engage in worship that doesn’t resonate with who they are, then you’re simply not serving them. Don’t ask them to fake it.
For pastors: Newton engaged Cowper with a great deal of intentionality. The Olney Hymns project was Newton’s way of developing Cowper’s melancholy and reflective personality.
Describing his reason for creating a hymnal (he was a busy pastor after all) Newton wrote in preface:
“…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.”
Engage the melancholy. Actively love the down-spirited. Mentor the broken. Above all: Make sure you’ve got the time. That sounds incredibly Christlike, yes?
If you’re interested, read the original preface to Olney Hymns here.