Tag Archives: William Cowper

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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Light Shining out of Darkness

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain:
God is His own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

William Cowper, Olney Hymns.

Joy and Peace in Believing

Source: William Cowper, Olney Hymns.

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new:
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
E’en let th’ unknown to-morrow
Bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing
But he will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe his people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And he who feeds the ravens,
Will give his children bread.

Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there:
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For while in him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

Walking with God

Genesis v. 24.

Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

William Cowper, Olney Hymns.