THIS hymn, like many others, was written by an Anglican clergyman, but there cannot be many priests with a background like that of John Newton.
He was born in Wapping, east London, in 1725, the son of a sea captain. His mother was a devout nonconformist and taught him the rudiments of Christianity, but she died just before John turned seven.
At 11 he left school and started going to sea with his father, becoming by his own admission an all-round bad lot: ‘A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was.’ His father retired when John was 17, and he signed on with a merchant ship. However while ashore a year later in 1743, he fell victim to a press-gang and was forced to join the Royal Navy. (‘Pressing’ men into service was legal and commonplace in those days. Gangs would patrol near ports and were particularly interested in men with seafaring experience. Merchant seamen could be recognised by their clothing. They would first be asked to volunteer for the Navy and if they refused they would simply be captured.) He became a midshipman aboard the warship HMS Harwich but he tried to desert. This was a most serious crime, and if he had been an enlisted man he would have been hanged. As it was he was sentenced to 96 lashes, the punishment carried out in front of the 350-strong ship’s company, and reduced to the rank of common seaman.
Presumably because he was a nuisance he was traded in 1745 to Pegasus, bound for West Africa to pick up slaves to be taken to the Caribbean and North America. The crew of Pegasus did not like him either and they abandoned him in West Africa with a slave dealer named Amos Clowe. In turn Clowe handed Newton on to his wife, Princess Peye of the Sherbro people of Sierra Leone, as a slave. The princess treated him as badly as her other slaves.
After three years he was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked to search for him by his father, and set sail for England aboard the merchant ship Greyhound. Off the coast of Ireland the ship hit a terrible storm and came close to sinking. Newton prayed for the first time in his adult life and subsequently read Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ and the Bible. (I can’t discover how he was able to read well enough, having finished his education at 11.) By the time he reached Britain on 10 March 1748, an anniversary he marked for the rest of his life, he had accepted the doctrines of Christianity, though he did not consider himself converted. However from that point on he avoided profanity, gambling and drinking.
In 1750 Newton married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, and they adopted two of her orphaned nieces.
Despite his new attitude, he continued to work in the slave trade, obtaining a position as first mate on the slave ship Brownlow, headed from Liverpool to Guinea. While in West Africa he became ill with a fever and professed his full belief in Christ. Still he did not give up the slave trade and made three more voyages as captain of the Duke of Argyle and the African. He had a stroke in 1754 and gave up seafaring, but retained a commercial interest in the slave business.
In 1755 he was appointed as a tide surveyor (customs officer) at the port of Liverpool. In the city he attended meetings held by the evangelistic preacher George Whitefield and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. They inspired him and he taught himself Greek and Hebrew, becoming well known as an evangelical lay minister. At this point he gave up his links with slavery. In 1757, he applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, but because he was deemed to be a Methodist it was more than seven years before he was accepted.
He was ordained in June 1764 and appointed curate at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney, Buckinghamshire. In 1767 the poet William Cowper moved to Olney and the two men became good friends, collaborating on a hymn book called Olney Hymns which was published in 1779. Newton contributed Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken as well as his other well-known works How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds and Amazing Grace, with its heartfelt first verse:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
(Newton’s hymns contrasted with those of Cowper, who suffered throughout his life with depression. One of his hymns has the opening line ‘There is a fountain filled with blood’.)
Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken is based on Psalm 87:3 ‘Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God’ (King James Bible). For many years the usual tune for Newton’s words was Austria, composed by Franz Joseph Haydn for Emperor Franz II in 1797. Later that year Haydn used the melody, with variations, in the second movement of his Emperor Quartet, played here by the Lyon family.
Here the hymn is performed by massed voices in the Royal Albert Hall.
You can see the lyrics here, though only verses 1 and 5 are sung.
Austria subsequently became the tune of the German national anthem and during the Second World War it was considered that a new melody was needed. This was supplied by Rev Cyril Vincent Taylor (1907–1991), then a producer of religious broadcasting at the BBC who was stationed at the village of Abbots Leigh in Somerset, after which he named the tune. Here is the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
However the taboo on the Haydn tune seems to have been lifted these days.
Newton spent 16 years in Olney, moving in 1779 to the Hawksmoor church of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London, a premier posting. He became an ally of William Wilberforce, leader of the parliamentary campaign to abolish the African slave trade.
Newton remained publicly silent about his role in the trade until 1784, 34 years after he retired from it, when he published a pamphlet called Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade. He detailed the horrific conditions on the slave voyages which could last as long as 13 weeks, during which as many as a quarter of the captives would die. ‘During the time I was engaged in the slave trade,’ he wrote, ‘I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. It is, indeed, accounted a genteel employment and is usually very profitable.’ He admitted that this was ‘a confession, which . . . comes too late . . . It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.’
He had copies sent to every MP, and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required reprinting.
His wife died in 1790, and three years later he published Letters to a Wife, in which he expressed his grief.
The law abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire received Royal Assent in March 1807 and Newton died in December that year, aged 82.
He wrote his own epitaph which can be seen on his gravestone in Olney cemetery:
John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.