Tag Archives: Late 18th century

Review: Olney Hymns

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: John Newton was the Anglican minister at Olney after being cast away as a mutineer on the African coast and sold to black slave-traders. He later became one of the champions of the abolition of the British slave trade.

William Cowper became famous in his own right through his long poem The Task. Although Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” the most famous hymn ever written, Cowper wrote many of the more famous ones. Several of these are still regularly sung today, whether in older or modern forms.

When: Olney Hymns was published in 1779 in the context of an (local) revival of religious fervor and commitment in England. This revival, with the abolitionist Clapham Sect at its center, led to many of the most well known Christian efforts against the British slave trade.

Overview: Olney Hymns is one of the most famous hymnbooks ever created, and is connected to an evangelical revival that was occurring with John Newton, William Wilberforce, and William Cowper in the middle of it. Most famously, it is the hymnbook that introduced “Amazing Grace” (and several other classics) to the world.

(An aside: Hymnbooks were used differently back then; the tunes were memorized, and any hymn could be sung to any melody with the same number of notes. So the original tune used for “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is not the one we sing now. If you want to prove this, try singing the first hymn in the book to the same tune as “Amazing Grace.”)

Meat: I have read several classic hymnbooks in recent years, but this is easily the best. The poetry is simple and exemplary, and for the most part, it makes great devotional reading.

Many hymns that we still sing in one version or another are traced back to this classic book. I had been singing “There is a fountain filled with blood” for years before I knew it was written by one of my favorite poets, William Cowper.

Bones: Interwoven with what we consider classic hymnody are expressions of self-loathing and near despair. Newton and Cowper were prone to “worm theology” and sometimes make very little of themselves. (“Save a wretch like me.”) This is concomitant with their Calvinism and was part of the worship of several centuries of Calvinists; today, though, we find this self-deprecation to be self-focused and destructive to the atmosphere of worship.

I should add, the original index, with a title, and the first line, and a paired Scripture, is pretty confusing to modern readers. (This requires three indexes!) And different editions number the poems differently to boot.

Best Poems: 

Walking with God (“Oh! for a closer walk with God,” Gen. 5:24)

Joy and Peace in Believing (“Sometimes a light surprises”)

Light Shining out of Darkness (“God moves in a mysterious way.”)

Praise for the Fountain Opened (“There is a fountain fill’d with blood,” Zech. 13:1)

Old Testament Gospel (“Israel, in ancient days,” Heb. 4:2)

Faith’s Review and Expectation (“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound,” 1 Chron. 17:16-17)

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William Carey Enquiry Book Cover

Review: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens

 Rating: ★★★★★

Who: William Carey, British missionary to India, known as “the father of modern missions.” He is also noted for his linguistic works and Bible translations in Bengali, Marathi, and several other languages.

When: 1792, one year before William Carey left for his mission field in India.

Overview: Encyclopedia Brittanica calls this pamphlet “the charter of Protestant missions.” This pamphlet led directly to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society. While it’s not so widely read today, Carey’s arguments are surprisingly current and readable.

Carey argues first that the Great Commission is Christ’s mandate to all his disciples, not just the Eleven (Section I); then he gives a summary of how Christianity grew through missions work, in the Book of Acts as well as over the centuries (Section II); the third section summarizes the state of missions in his day; the fourth section debunks a series of objections in the way of missionary service; and, the last section explains the duties of all Christians to further missions work by prayer and finances.

Meat: The first part of Carey’s pamphlet argues persuasively that the commissions of Jesus apply to all Christians, not just the apostles. His arguments in this section are timeless and should be discussed even at the present time. Jesus has not repealed or amended the Great Commission; it stands binding on all his followers.

Carey also has some great reminders about missionary hardship. (He encourages his readers that the invention of mariner’s compass has made travel much more certain!) He points out with conviction—Livingstone noted the same in Africa—that traders will undergo any hardship for the single goal of riches; Christians with a single goal should likewise “act with all their might,” without fear, in the pursuit of this all-encompassing goal. (See quote below from p. 82.)

Bones: It is difficult to make heads or tails of Section III, Carey’s survey of the state of world missions, which is replete with obsolete place names; even the data itself is questionable. Section II might also seem superfluous to many readers, although the history itself is well done.

Quotes: “Where a command exists nothing can be necessary to render it binding but a removal of those obstacles which render obedience impossible, and these are removed already.” (On the Great Commission, p. 11)

“After all, the uncivilized state of the heathen, instead of affording an objection against preaching the gospel to them, ought to furnish an argument for it.” (p. 69)

“It is inconsistent for ministers to please themselves with thoughts of a numerous auditory, cordial friends, a civilized country, legal protection, affluence, splendour, or even a competency. The flights, and hatred of men, and even pretended friends, gloomy prisons, and tortures, the society of barbarians of uncouth speech, miserable accommodations in wretched wildernesses, hunger, and thirst, nakedness, weariness, and painfulness, hard work, and but little worldly encouragement, should rather be the objects of their expectation. ” (p. 72)

“When a trading company have obtained their charter they usually go to its utmost limits. … They cross the widest and most tempestuous seas, and encounter the most unfavourable climates; they introduce themselves into the most barbarous nations, and sometimes undergo the most affecting hardship. … Christians are a body whose truest interest lies in the exaltation of the Messiah’s kingdom. Their charter is very extensive, their encouragements exceeding great, and the returns promised infinitely superior to all the gains of the most lucrative fellowship. Let then every one in his station consider himself as bound to act with all his might, and in every possible way for God.” (p. 82)